Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Robert David SullivanOctober 17, 2016

Donald Trump vows to “make America great again.” Hillary Clinton proclaims, “We’re stronger together.” They seem like compatible messages, but they are pitched to different types of people, in distant parts of the country.

While Democratic presidential nominees have become almost invincible among the highly educated urbanites—having done better and better among city dwellers and the well-educated over the past few decades—Republicans have increased their margins among white voters in more rural areas, especially in the South and among those without college degrees. There is now an almost exact correlation between population density and party strength, with Democrats at an advantage where there are more than 800 residents per square mile.

Democrats and Republicans were not always favored along these geographic, racial and educational lines. Historically, the Democratic base was the Deep South and the Republicans did best in the Northeast. Since the 20th century the parties have swapped turfs, and their major demographic groups, too. The field of battle has also narrowed as of late. When President Obama was re-elected in 2012, the two major parties were within five percentage points of each other in only 275 counties (less than one-tenth of the total), whereas in 1992 the two major parties were within five points of one another in almost 700 counties.

This year the parties have picked nominees seemingly ideally suited to continue those trends. Hillary Clinton fared best in the Democratic primaries with nonwhite voters, college graduates and residents of large cities like New York and Washington. Donald Trump did well in Republican primaries among white voters without college degrees, though within that group he did better among higher-income voters. Throughout the summer, polls showed Mrs. Clinton outperforming Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign among white college graduates while doing the same or worse among white voters, especially men, without degrees.
Political analysts agree on these trends, but they have had sharp disagreements on why they are happening. Some argue that Mr. Trump is benefiting from fears of being left out of an increasingly global economy with few jobs for less-educated Americans. Others say the Republican nominee’s appeal is based on simple racism.



The Trump Conundrum

Compared with past Democratic nominees, Hillary Clinton is thriving among those who are doing well (white college graduates) and those who feel things are getting better. The second group includes African-American voters and other minority groups; Jamelle Bouie, a writer for Slate, wrote, “If you’re black, if you’re Latino, if you’re gay—life is unquestionably better now than it was in the past.”

This combination of white college graduates and nonwhite voters is helping the Democrats in highly educated “battleground” states like Colorado and Virginia. For Mr. Trump to win, he must capture more states on the lower half of the educational-attainment scale, including Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Within those “left behind” states, Mr. Trump must do very well among white men, who—in contrast to women and nonwhites—have seen their incomes fall over the past 40 years. As Kevin Drum of Mother Jones writes, “It's certainly something that helps explain why white men are angrier than most people about their economic position.”

Others are less sympathetic. Vox’s Matthew Ygelsias argues that “racial resentment,” not the economy, accounts for Mr. Trump’s popularity, and that is why the candidate has gotten away with few specifics on how he would improve his supporters’ lives: “When Trump voters say they’re upset about needing to press one for English, mad that Black Lives Matter protesters are slandering police officers, and worried that Muslim and/or Mexican immigrants are going to murder their children, it’s perverse to interpret them as secretly hankering for a refundable child care tax credit.”

Despite rising mortality rates, joblessness and drug addiction among low-income whites, Alec MacGillis writes in ProPublica, there is a “barely veiled implication” from both the left and right that “the people undergoing these travails deserve relatively little sympathy—that they maybe, kinda had this reckoning coming.”

But Mr. Trump is not necessarily doing the best among those with the most hardships. Using exit polls and Census Bureau data, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver estimated that the median household income of a Trump supporter in the Republican primaries before he clinched the nomination was $72,000—significantly above the national median of $56,000. In August, an analysis by the Gallup polling company also found that Mr. Trump had more support among middle-income voters (especially the self-employed) rather than low-income voters, and that he was actually less popular in places that have seen the sharpest decline in manufacturing jobs. (The study also found that his supporters were less likely to live in neighborhoods with a significant number of immigrants or nonwhite residents.)

RELATED: Indispensable: A Trump Win Depends on Catholics

Over all, however, Mr. Trump did better in places that still had a manufacturing base but had low economic mobility, or where children found it difficult to earn more than their parents—and where there are higher mortality rates among middle-aged whites. Washington Post reporters Max Ehrenfreund and Jeff Guo speculate, “Trump supporters tend to live in places where the world has gotten visibly tougher for the kids on the block.... It could be that Trump supporters aren't worried for themselves, but for their children.”

There is plenty of evidence from polling data that racism and prejudice against both immigrants and religious minorities are higher among supporters of Mr. Trump, who raised his political profile by propagating the falsehood that President Barack Obama was born outside the United States and is therefore an illegitimate president. But this does not mean that white, working-class voters are willfully ignoring a strong economy or simply refusing to give credit to a black president. The economic recovery has not made it to many parts of the country beyond the Northeast Corridor. Frustration with an uncertain future may, in turn, fuel racism and xenophobia.

The Decline of the Blue-Collar Democrat

At times in recent history, the Democratic Party has seemed to make progress toward a biracial coalition of working-class voters. Robert F. Kennedy tried to unite blacks and working-class whites during his brief presidential run in 1968, and Jimmy Carter got overwhelming support from African-Americans in 1976 while still getting about half the white vote. (Hispanic voters were not yet counted separately.) Just four years later, however, Republican Ronald Reagan opened a 20-point lead among white voters, even as he got only about 10 percent of nonwhite voters. There has been a huge racial gap in just about every election since then.

One factor in the erosion of working-class, white Democrats may be the decline in labor union membership, from about one-third of all American workers in the 1950s to barely more than one-tenth today. The AFL-CIO was one of several major unions to actively support Mr. Obama in 2008, and after the election it released exit poll data showing that white males who were union members supported the Democrat by 18 points—in contrast to President Obama’s 16-point loss among white males over all. “Unions are remarkably effective at getting people to the polls,” wrote sociologist Neil Gross in a column in the New York Times on the findings. “Unions can also push their members to overcome prejudices bearing on politics.”

Union support may be one explanation for why Mr. Obama, while getting only about 35 percent of the white male vote nationwide in 2012, won more than 40 percent in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin—the “blue wall” of states that have voted Democratic in every election since 1988. These states have long been on the Republican Party’s most-wanted list. Even if Mr. Trump falls short this time, the Democrats cannot afford to give up on white, working-class voters in the Midwest, if only because it would be impossible to take back the House of Representatives when the party is limited to carrying major cities like Detroit and Milwaukee.

RELATED: The Private Faith Life of Hillary Clinton

But it may be difficult for the Democrats to stop their slide among white, working-class men when they have the image of a “redistributionist” party—that is, a party more committed to increasing economic opportunities for women and nonwhites than to expanding the economy for everyone (and who knows how to do that?). As the political scientist Howard Rosenthal told the New York Times, “Redistribution is not win-win.... Identity politics is a matter of social justice that has limited economic benefits for white males.” Mr. Trump is playing on this recognition in his promise to turn back the clock and “make America great again.” A similar phenomenon is happening in Great Britain, France, Germany and other European countries, where culturally conservative, anti-immigration parties are faring well with working-class voters.

The Republican Party was making inroads with white, working-class voters long before Mr. Trump came along, and if he loses that bloc in November, the Democrats may get a little too giddy about their long-term prospects. “Reform conservatives,” also known as “reformocons,” have been working for years on a Republican agenda to appeal to working-class voters—one based on tax relief for lower-income families and on mitigating the effects of globalization in ways more subtle than building a giant wall—and will surely survive Mr. Trump. (Admittedly, their ranks as of now include more writers, like David Frum and the National Review’s Reihan Salam, than elected officials.) Making 2016 nothing more than a referendum on “white male privilege,” or a celebration of its death, may win the presidency for Democrats but leave the party worse off in Congress and in state legislatures.

The Present Versus the Future

On the surface the future looks bright for the Democrats, who have advantages among growing demographic groups like nonwhites, college graduates and urbanites. In 1980, the national electorate was about 88 percent non-Hispanic white. Republican Ronald Reagan won 56 percent of the white vote, which translated to 49 percent of all votes. (Reagan won 51 percent of the total vote.) By 2012, the electorate was only 72 percent white; among this group Mitt Romney did better than Reagan had, getting 59 percent, but this translated to only 42 percent of all votes. (He won 47 percent over all.) At least at the presidential level, the long-term trend is not good for a party struggling with nonwhite voters.

Not coincidentally, the Republicans have a particular problem with younger voters—Mr. Trump has a 74 percent unfavorability rating among voters under 30, according to one poll—and FiveThirtyEight’s Clare Malone warns, “bad reputations can stick around for years; like sports teams and baldness, our political beliefs are passed down through generations and familial connections.”

RELATED: Trump Makes a Place for Faith

Still, the Republican Party can adapt to demographic reality in a short time. Just as Mr. Trump unexpectedly dominated the G.O.P. primaries in 2016, a newcomer with greater appeal among younger and college-educated voters could put together a new coalition to win the party’s nomination in 2020—similar to the one that was not yet large enough to carry Florida Sen. Marco Rubio through this year’s primary season. This is assuming that Republican primary voters will not double down on white nationalism, embracing a candidate of what has been called the “alternative right,” or a reactionary movement against multiculturalism. That would guarantee that the party will continue to fall behind among young and college-educated voters, who are more comfortable with diversity.

Another possibility: the inability of the two major parties to hold onto their bases, let alone attract new voters, finally makes it possible for a third party to take root. A Pew Research Center poll from August showed Gary Johnson, the Libertarian nominee, and Jill Stein, the Green Party nominee, getting a combined 27 percent of the vote among voters under 30.

History tells us that support for minor parties fades as the election gets nearer, and even if a third party does well, it cannot replicate its success in the next election. Then again, history told us that someone like Donald Trump could never be nominated by a major party for president.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Rydberg
5 years 8 months ago
Seems like city people are becoming more Canada-like... In Canada the Resource & Service sectors dominate. We have no law limiting Abortion. We are passing Euthanasia laws. We are currently the 2nd largest Arms Dealer in the Middle East. Its all done quietly... Even the Canada and USA Society of Jesus which runs America Magazine never says a word. Such is what Americans have to look forward to if current demographic trends continues. But who really knows? in Christ,
Henry George
5 years 8 months ago
I would offer caution in any demographic study. I have friends who have "Hispanic" last names but are pure European and are descended from wealthy families. By the time you are a third generation Immigrant - how much does your ethnic heritage matter ? The Political Pendulum seems to be swinging Hillary and the Democrats' way but it will swing back as the party in power always overplays it hand. America - why are comments that insult "poor Southern Whites - don't forget to add toothless" permitted to be published. Would you allow a comment along the same lines about "Hispanic Immigrants" or "African Americans" be published ? How many editors of America ever picked cotton, cut and gathered broken wood, toiled under 105 degree heat in 95 % humidity ? Anyone can be misled by propaganda - education has very little to do with preventing us from seeing what we wish to see. And yes, a College Education means very little compared to what it meant in the 60's.
Sam Sawyer, S.J.
5 years 8 months ago

The comments you raised questions about have been removed. Comment moderation is not instant, and they were less than a day old. In the future, if you see comments that you are concerned about, please report them to webmaster@americamagazine.org.

The latest from america

Boris Johnson stands before a microphone with his head bowed
The crisis should inspire the U.K. to reflect upon the values upheld by figures in public life, said Bishop Egan.
Scott P. Richert, publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, speaks July 6, 2022, during the Catholic Media Conference in Portland, Ore. He announced the Jan. 1, 2023, launching of OSV News. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)
Scott Richert, publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, said the Catholic publishing company would fill the void left behind by the closure of the domestic operations of Catholic News Service in January 2023.
We can't let inflation go unchallenged. President Biden is running out of time before investment dries up because of confusion and fear.
A Reflection for the Thursday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time, by Joe Hoover, S.J.
Joe Hoover, S.J.July 07, 2022