Conventional post-election wisdom has it that Donald Trump lost the election because the “white working class” abandoned the Democrats. Clearly he ran a populist campaign, and he just gave a populist inaugural address. But, we have been wondering about the accuracy of this “working class” hypothesis about the election and so decided to look into it.
But first, why worry about populism, and what is it anyway? Briefly stated, it is the direct political appeal, bypassing conventional representative institutions, to those on the down side of intensifying economic inequality. It offers dramatic solutions to their woes by attacking conventional practices and policies to find remedies through popular revolt. This is as far as some sanguine observers of populism will go. Once in power, however, many populist leaders, most notably in Latin America, have turned authoritarian and have failed to deliver on their promises, often using nationalism to exaggerate fears against external enemies and to preserve their power, while at the same time scapegoating domestic minorities to explain away more fundamental causes of economic despair. This can begin with the chaos and confusion E.J. Dionne writes about the day after the inauguration. We can only hope this will go no further than phony promises (See more on this from Paul Krugman here and here.) and not result in a further loss of faith in democratic political institutions and politics.
- We started down our research road with this fascinating piece by pollster Guy Molyneaux in the American Prospect. He says the white working class is not at all homogeneous in its thinking. He looks to its “progressives” and “moderates” elements to eventually separate from its “conservatives”. He argues that the non-conservatives are not racist. Rather, they are concerned about economic issues and they could be wooed back to the Democratic Party. Their biggest hostilities are toward a government and politics that have failed them. Unfortunately, he doesn’t define “working class”, so it’s hard to know who he is talking about. Molyneaux is not alone in this failure to be precise.
- Rural voters fall within Trump’s populist umbrella, but we don’t know where they belong when it comes to class. We know there are big wealthy farmers and small farmers that struggle, but again, analysis lacks precision. Eduardo Porter takes a good shot at explaining it this piece, but we need to know more
- Check out these charts. Education matters. Of course it correlates with income, but not totally, and which factor is stronger? Trump’s margin among whites without a college degree is larger than in any election since 1980. But, among whites with college degrees he won by only 4%, much less than Romney did in 2010. The only white category Clinton took was college educated women.
- Exit polls are not thought of as reliable, but we’ll give you some from CNN anyway. If they count, these indicate the importance of such factors as: how early or late in the campaign voters made their decisions, education, minority status, status as white, and income. Those with incomes lower than $50,000 were solidly behind Clinton, and surely they are working class, poor working class in many cases. The picture is more muddied as you move up the income classifications. One thing is clear, white voters went for Trump. As noted, the only white group he didn’t get was white women college graduates.
- Trade issues seem to have made a contribution to the populist surge in this election. Brookings has found that about half of Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which is given to workers who can prove they have been negatively impacted by trade (and proof is tough) is given out in urban areas. But it is in other areas — rural and what Brookings calls “micro” areas — where trade has taken its heaviest toll because replacement jobs are harder to find than in the urban areas hit by trade. TAA is not up to its task and it is in these areas where Trump had significant victories.
- Where voters found their election news is telling. Clinton voters used a wider spread of sources while 40% of Trump voters relied on Fox News. Fox News also got the highest rating among all voters combined, but Clinton voters put it last. CNN ranked second for all voters and for Trump voters specifically, but Clinton voters turned first to CNN. Clinton voters were also more likely to support fact checking. We don’t have a correlation of this with income or education, but are not sure we need one.
So where do we come down? Race and education levels strike us so far as the clearest determinants of how voters choose.
And then we found this, which made us think we were on the right track!
- Nate Silver – the pollster who was least wrong – is still kicking. He hibernated for awhile but then looked at 2016 election results in the most educated and least educated counties — trying to also factor in race and income — and came up with view that education trumps (couldn’t find a better word) income in voting behavior. Read this! The most educated counties went more for Clinton than Obama. (And remember, Clinton voters are the least dependent on Fox New.) The least educated counties went for Trump even if they had gone for Obama (remember too that 40% of Trump voters rely on Fox News for their election information).
- Not to be lost in all of this is the historic, now weakened, but still potential role of unions. This piece by Neil Gross came out in August, but apparently not enough Clinton campaign moguls read it. Unions are not just about the economic welfare of their members, they educate them too. As Gross makes clear, unions teach tolerance and they also combat impulse voting preferences with an informative political hard sell to their members on who really represents what. You can bet the anti-union right understands this perfectly and that its campaign to destroy unions will continue apace. They are happy that unions only delivered a % 9 differential (exit polls again) over comparable voters who went for Trump. They will work hard to make it even less next time. Unfortunately, the AFL-CIO was virtually non-existent as an education force on the political airways this round. As Steven Greenhouse, the last labor stringer the New York Times hosted, has pointed out, labor has a lot of soul-searching to do. Even so, both unions and job creators do not reach into the rural heartland, where so many Trump supporters are to be found.
So, we will continue to keep an eye on these kinds of analyses, but the sources of US populist voting behavior may be a lot more complicated than they at first appear. It’s not as simple as that Clinton was abandoned by the white “working class.”