“Donald J. Trump won the presidency by riding an enormous wave of support among white working-class voters.” So read the first line of a New York Times story the day after the votes were counted in 2016. It was the prevailing narrative after the election and the cause of much soul searching among reporters. Why didn’t they see the white working-class wave while the election was underway?
It is easy enough to identify some of the reasons, including journalists’ obsession with Hillary Clinton’s emails and Trump’s border wall. But did journalists get it right even after the 2016 election? Is the storyline of Trump’s extraordinary appeal to white working-class Americans — a storyline that has carried into the 2020 election — an accurate one?
Trump clearly couldn’t have won in 2016, or have a chance this time, without white working-class voters — commonly defined as white voters without a college degree. These voters constitute roughly two-fifths of all voters and more than half in key battleground states like Michigan and Wisconsin. Trump has no pathway to the White House that omits their vote.
On the other hand, the argument that they have a special affinity for Trump needs a bit of tuning. They are not recent converts to the Republican cause. They have been a mainstay of the GOP for more than a half century. After passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, they deserted the Democratic Party in large numbers, particularly in the South. The 1968 Democratic presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey, failed to carry the white working-class vote. No Democratic nominee since then has carried it.
The shift after the Civil Rights Act came more quickly and was larger than might be thought. Trump attracted more working-class white votes than other recent Republican nominees but not by a large margin and by a margin no greater than Ronald Reagan’s edge in 1984. Although different in tone and style, Reagan’s pitch was Trump’s pitch: working people were being taxed to pay for government programs that benefit people who don’t work or don’t work hard enough, most of whom are minorities. In the years since Reagan, the Republican vote among white people without college degrees has varied with the salience of that pitch. In the 2012 election, for example, middle-income white people without degrees, most of whom already had personal or job-related health insurance, voiced their displeasure with the Affordable Care Act by voting more heavily Republican than usual.
It’s also the case that white working-class voters didn’t give Trump a distinctive boost in 2016. Compared with the 2012 Barack Obama-Mitt Romney race, the marginal shift in their vote toward the GOP was roughly the same magnitude as that of other Republican-leaning groups. Working-class whites’ decisive role in 2016 was less a consequence of their unique response to Trump than their unusually large numbers in the pivotal states of Wisconsin and Michigan and, to a lesser degree, Pennsylvania.
So how should journalists think about white working-class voters in the closing weeks of the 2020 campaign? Like 2016, their concentration in a few key battleground states makes them a group deserving of special attention.
Yet, the backdrop to 2020 is not that of 2016, a hint of which appeared in the 2018 midterm when the GOP’s support slipped among this group, partly in response to the 2017 tax cut bill, which, despite Trump’s promise that it would primarily benefit the middle class, rewarded those of higher income. Polls indicated a majority of white working-class Republicans opposed the tax cuts.
The economic downturn caused by COVID-19 will also play into their response this time. Since the late 1960s, working class whites have voted less heavily Republican during economic slowdowns than when the economy is strong. Many working-class Republicans have opinions on pocketbook issues that are more closely aligned with the positions of the Democratic Party than those of the GOP, as I show in my recent book, Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself? When those opinions come to the fore in hard economic times, Republicans’ appeals to welfare spending and racial resentment have less traction.
Trump is likely to get a lower percentage of their vote in 2020, but it could be offset by a yet unmentioned factor — the relatively low voting rate of whites without a college education. Although they outnumber college-educated whites in the United States, their voter turnout rate is significantly lower. Trump has spent his entire presidency pursuing a strategy of inciting his base. If he can get working-class white people to do what they traditionally have not done — turnout in exceptionally high numbers — they could yet again be decisive. It didn’t happen in the 2018 midterms. Although their turnout rose, it rose by much less than that of Democratic leaning groups, including Black and Hispanic people and Asian Americans. More than anything this time, journalists should be looking for indicators of whether working-class whites will show up at the polls in unprecedented numbers.
Thomas E. Patterson is Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of the recently published Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself? Journalist’s Resource plans to post a new installment of his Election Beat 2020 series every week leading up to the 2020 U.S. election. Patterson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu. “The White Working Class and the 2016 Election,” Perspectives on Politics, October 2020.
Stephen L. Morgan and Jiwon Lee. “Trump Voters and the White Working Class,” Sociological Science 5, 2018.
Thomas E. Patterson. Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself, 2020.
“White Working Class Voters,” New York Magazine, series of articles, 2018-2020.