Working-class Whites surprised everyone in the 2016 election, right?
News programs touted the unexpected proportion who voted for then-candidate Trump, making the difference in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan.
But if you go back to 2000 as the Clinton era ended, says professor of political science Charles Prysby, a shift had already begun.
Before, Democrats did significantly better among White working-class voters than White middle-class voters. By 2012, the tide had completely turned.
Dr. Prysby lays out this research in the new book “Rich Voter, Poor Voter, Red Voter, Blue Voter: Social Class and Voting Behavior in Contemporary America,” published by Routledge.
While the trend was even more pronounced in Trump’s favor in 2016, Mitt Romney also did better among working-class White voters than he did among middle-class White voters, says Prysby. “Even though Romney was an entirely different kind of Republican than Trump.”
What happened? This voting demographic had been solidly Democratic since the 1930s.
No one factor is at play. It’s partly issues like immigration, abortion, and gay rights, as White working-class voters in the last 20 years have become more conservative on social issues. White working-class voters also no longer see the Democratic Party as better on economic concerns. They’re now more skeptical about the benefits of free trade. One of the Democrats’ key issues of the 1990s was future benefits of NAFTA. It turned out that issue helped Trump with this demographic in 2016.
The media often get it wrong when looking at social class, as well, Prysby says. They usually use education to measure social class: individuals with college educations are middle class, those without are working class. But a lot of clearly middle-class and even upper middle-class voters lack a four-year degree. Bill Gates comes to mind, he notes.
Income is a better measure. But there are caveats: marital status matters, because a two-adult household likely has a higher income than a single-adult household. And take a close look at younger voters. It is difficult to measure social class for young people, as they may not have completed their education or started their career. A twenty-something law school student may be cash poor, but is hardly working class.
When the media say it’s all about Trump’s appeal, they’re missing the full picture. “This shift in the relationship between social class and voting has been occurring throughout this century. It isn’t just a Trump phenomenon. And I think it’ll continue beyond Trump.”