What Didn't Happen?

"Working Class" Voters

"Working Class" Voters 

PERHAPS THE MOST prominent narrative about the 2016 election is that Donald Trump emerged victorious because disaffected “working class”—or white working class—voters flocked to him. Many such accounts stress in particular the importance of working class voters in the “Rust Belt,” the region where most of the states that swung to Trump are concentrated. We will consider the specific voting patterns in that region in the following section. But first it is important to scrutinize the extent to which Trump’s was a largely “working class” constituency—a characterization that we find both conceptually fraught and empirically suspect.

Media coverage of the 2016 election tended to use the concept of “the working class” in inconsistent and reductive ways. This may, to some extent, be unavoidable. There is no consensus among social researchers as to the criteria by which to define social class, nor even whether it should be assigned through objective versus subjective metrics. A person’s class identity generally lies at the intersection of a number of social and economic characteristics—occupation, income, education, and racialization, among others.46 The degree of significance of each of these in turn varies depending on contextual factors; as with other forms of social differentiation, the enactment of class is situational and relational, not fixed or absolute.47

Many analyses of the 2016 electorate slipped back and forth between conflating class identity with income on one hand, and with educational attainment on the other. Both conflations run the risk of yielding misleading analyses. Where income is concerned, the $50,000 mark often used as the “working class” cut-off is not necessarily a threshold of economic security; this varies based on family size, place of residence, and other factors. Meanwhile, to boil class down to whether or not an individual has a college degree reduces it to a binary with no possibility of a “middle class.” It also ignores the fact that it is still relatively common for persons without a college degree to earn above what most would consider a “working class” income—in some cases, far more. Data from the ANES post-election survey find that almost 60 percent of white voters without a degree who supported Trump in fact came from households in the top half of the income distribution. One in five non-college white Trump voters were from households earning over $100,000.48 Should these be counted among his “working class” supporters?

Though there is a fairly strong correlation between median household income and the share of a population with a college degree, the two factors can be disentangled. Numerous analyses show that educational attainment was much more predictive of 2016 voter preference, especially among whites, as we discuss below. The narrative that Trump won over low-income voters requires more caveats. Exit polls suggest that, while those earning $50,000 or less in swing states gave Republicans more support in 2016 than in 2012, they did not do so in numbers even close to those that abandoned the Democrats. That is, hundreds of thousands more voters in this income group abstained or voted for a smaller party’s candidate compared to 2012.49

Though they are rarely the focus of post-election discourse on the “working class,” members of union households did in fact give Secretary Clinton smaller margins than they gave past Democratic candidates. She won among union household members, but only by +8, down from +18 for President Obama in 2012. But again, much of this lost support for Democrats did not go to Trump. According to national exit polls, for every seven voters from a union household that voted for Obama in 2012 but not for Clinton in 2016, only three went to Trump while four went to other candidates.

In some cases, the characterization of Trump supporters as “working class” appears to be a shorthand for myriad local social problems that correlate with large increases in support for Trump relative to other Republicans. For example, sociologist Shannon Monnat shows that Trump out-performed Mitt Romney in counties with low rates of college graduates, but even more in those with rising rates of mortality from drugs, alcohol, and suicide. Monnat discusses such “deaths of despair” as a scourge of the post-industrial US working class.50 Similarly, The Economist found that a low score on an index of county-level public-health statistics is an extraordinarily strong predictor of gains in the county for Trump vis-à-vis Romney. The index includes statistics on county-wide obesity, diabetes, heavy drinking, and rates of physical (in)activity. Here too the authors associate these conditions with “the working class,” while stressing that poor physical health strongly predicts Trump support even when controlling for educational attainment.51 Correlations like these perpetuate the ongoing debate over the role of economic anxiety in motivating voters to support Trump—a debate we take up in a forthcoming companion piece to this report.

Finally, any talk of “the working class” should be careful not to present it as either overwhelmingly white, or engaged principally in manufacturing. One analysis of the 2016 electorate found that 40 percent of voters who both (1) had no college degree and (2) lived in a household earning less than $50,000 were non-white. Not surprisingly, a larger share of this group was employed in the service sector than in manufacturing. And this “working class” split its votes evenly between Clinton and Trump, 47-47.52 This is a far cry from the narrative on 2016 working-class voters still put forward in most media accounts, which this section has shown to be based on fluid, partial, and often problematic conceptions of the group in question.

Media analyses of the 2016 election have deployed the term “working class” in inconsistent and reductive ways, oscillating between conflating class identity with household income and with educational attainment.

The popular racialized image of “the working class” as white is inaccurate by any standard. Of all 2016 voters who had no college degree and lived in households with an income under $50,000, around 40 percent reported a racial or ethnic identity other than white.

Of the white voters without a college degree who voted for Trump, around 60 percent were from households in the top half of the income distribution. One in five was from a household with an income over $100,000.

  • 46. See, for example, David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (Revised Edition), Verso, 1999; and Kathryn Marie Dudley, The End of the Line: Lost Jobs, New Lives in Postindustrial America, The University of Chicago Press, 1994. For explication of the concept of racialization, see john a. powell, Racing to Justice: Transforming our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society, Indiana University Press, 2012.
  • 47. For a concise, classic statement of this understanding of identity formation and difference, see Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Jonathan Rutherford, ed., Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, Lawrence & Wishart, 1990.
  • 48. Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu, “It’s time to bust the myth: Most Trump voters were not working class,” Monkey Cage/The Washington Post, June 5, 2017.
  • 49. Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr, “The Myth of the Rust Belt Revolt,” Slate, December 1, 2016.
  • 50. Shannon M. Monnat, “Deaths of Despair and Support for Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election,” Research Brief, The Pennsylvania State University, December 2016.
  • 51. The Economist, “Illness as indicator: Local health outcomes predict Trumpward swings,” The Economist, November 19, 2016.
  • 52. Saleem Reshamwala and Giovanni Russonello, “Election 2016: Label Breakdown,” New York Times, November 15, 2016.