Who are Donald Trump's loyal supporters?

Supporters wear t-shirts spelling out "Trump" at an iowa rally. Image copyright Getty Images

Despite a string of controversial statements, New York billionaire Donald Trump continues to lead the Republican presidential field. So who are these die-hard supporters who are standing by their man, through thick and thin?

In campaign stop after campaign stop, thousands come to catch a glimpse of the candidate who has turned the Republican presidential contest on its head. They wear buttons, hold up homemade signs and clutch glossy photos of the celebrity billionaire in the hope of garnering an autograph.

Ask them why they support their candidate, and almost to a person they say it's because he's a proven winner who is not beholden to the interests or influences of a political establishment that they feel has abandoned them.

"He's not a politician, he's just a man," says Mary Faulk, who attended a Trump rally at the fairgrounds of her home town of Manassas, Virginia. "He's a man that came up, worked his way up, and I think that's what we need. I'm 66 years old, our country is in trouble, and we need to do something."

They view his lack of experience in politics not as a flaw, but an asset.

"In the bigger picture he does have a lot to learn, but we all know he's an excellent manager and very, very bright," said Kathy Baker, another of the thousand-plus who attended Mr Trump's Virginia event. "I have faith that he will learn and develop the policies that will make America the superpower that we want it to be."

But what of Mr Trump's controversial statements and the ensuing media firestorms they create? His supporters largely view the New Yorker's brash pronouncements as evidence that he won't be cowed when faced with adversity and that his opinions are his own, and not something crafted by political handlers that he will abandon once he gets elected.

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Image caption Donald Trump rallies often include more than a few autograph-seekers

"Unlike most of the other people, he speaks what he thinks and he doesn't hold back," says Nicholas Poucher, a 16-year-old Trump supporter from Lakeland, Florida, who came to see Mr Trump give a speech at a Republican Party presidential forum in Orlando. "You get what he really believes in, even if everything that he says isn't what is the right thing exactly."

And while there was speculation that Mr Trump's call to close the US border to Muslims had, at last, crossed a moral and ethical line - a new poll shows that his view is shared by nearly two-thirds of likely Republican primary voters. Mr Trump may be controversial, but he's smack in the middle of the mainstream for the conservative voters who will pick their party's presidential nominee.

In September David Brady and Douglas Rivers of the Hoover Institution took a closer look at the demographics of Mr Trump's enduring coalition. They painted a picture of Trump supporters as largely older, less wealthy and less educated.

They found that more than half of Trump-backers are female. About a third are over the age of 65. Only 2% are younger than 30. Half of his voters have a high-school diploma, but just 19% have a college degree. Just over a third earn less than $50,000, while 11% make six figures or more.

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Image caption Donald Trump has consistently attracted the largest crowds in the Republican presidential field

Ideologically, Mr Trump's people are all over the board, with 20% identifying as moderate, 65% as conservative and 13% as very conservative. When the New Yorker entered the race, he pulled support from nearly every candidate in the field.

In the ensuing months, even as Mr Trump made controversial remark after controversial remark, and various other candidates surged and subsided, these numbers have stayed remarkably consistent.

A focus group of Trump supporters conducted by pollster Frank Luntz earlier this week revealed that, by and large, Trump's backers are pessimistic about the future of the country and passionately hate President Barack Obama and the mainstream media. They're wary of Muslims and steadfast in their support of their candidate, even to the point of being willing to follow him in an independent presidential bid if he leaves the Republican Party.

And, if anything, the candidate's anti-Muslim pronouncements this week and the subsequent denunciations have only solidified their views of the man. Of the 29 panel participants, only one said he is now less likely to vote for the billionaire.

All of this raises what the Washington Post's Max Ehrenfreund calls a "fundamental, universal and uncomfortable" truth about Donald Trump and his now more than four-month run as the man to beat in the Republican primary.

He spoke to a number of psychologists and came up with three key sources of Mr Trump's appeal.

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Image caption Donald Trump supporters tend to be older than the average Republican voter

"We like people who talk big," he writes. "We like people who tell us that our problems are simple and easy to solve, even when they aren't. And we don't like people who don't look like us."

There's still just under two months before the presidential nomination process begins in Iowa, New Hampshire and then in a series of states across the nation - and until the votes start being counted and convention delegates apportioned, there's no way to know for certain if Mr Trump's support is really, truly solid. Some polls have found that Mr Trump's fans, while devoted, may be less likely to actually show up at the polling stations on election day.

In addition, the New Yorker's band of backers may be loyal, but they may also be unlikely to swell much beyond the 30-35% of the Republican electorate now registering in surveys thanks to the candidate's higher negative ratings among party faithful due to his brash demeanor and incendiary rhetoric. While that's good enough to win when the field is fragmented, it will not carry the day as unsuccessful candidates drop out. Mr Trump may start strong, but fade down the stretch.

This, at least, is what establishment Republicans likely are telling themselves right now to help them sleep at night.

Republican candidates in - and out - of the 2016 presidential race

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