It seemed from the media coverage of Trump’s campaign that his support was rooted in uneducated lower income working-class voters. But in my own community, I saw lots of Trump signs and I know for a fact that most if not all residents are affluent and most likely well educated retirees. So, we should ask, who really elected Trump?
Two social scientist have the answer in this Washington Post article: It’s time to bust the myth: Most Trump voters were not working class.. In fact, most of Trump’s support came from fairly well-to-do educated whites. I’ll hit the key points in these snippets and then weigh in with some thoughts of my own.
Media coverage of the 2016 election often emphasized Donald Trump’s appeal to the working class. The Atlantic said that “the billionaire developer is building a blue-collar foundation.” The Associated Press wondered what “Trump’s success in attracting white, working-class voters” would mean for his general election strategy. On Nov. 9, the New York Times front-page article about Trump’s victory characterized it as “a decisive demonstration of power by a largely overlooked coalition of mostly blue-collar white and working-class voters.”
There’s just one problem: this account is wrong. Trump voters were not mostly working-class people.
During the primaries, Trump supporters were mostly affluent people.
… For example, a March 2016 NBC survey that we analyzed showed that only a third of Trump supporters had household incomes at or below the national median of about $50,000. Another third made $50,000 to $100,000, and another third made $100,000 or more and that was true even when we limited the analysis to only non-Hispanic whites. If being working class means being in the bottom half of the income distribution, the vast majority of Trump supporters during the primaries were not working class.
But what about education? Many pundits noticed early on that Trump’s supporters were mostly people without college degrees. There were two problems with this line of reasoning, however. First, not having a college degree isn’t a guarantee that someone belongs in the working class (think Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg). And, second, although more than 70 percent of Trump supporters didn’t have college degrees, when we looked at the NBC polling data, we noticed something the pundits left out: during the primaries, about 70 percent of all Republicans didn’t have college degrees, close to the national average (71 percent according to the 2013 Census). Far from being a magnet for the less educated, Trump seemed to have about as many people without college degrees in his camp as we would expect any successful Republican candidate to have.
Trump voters weren’t majority working class in the general election, either.
The authors found that the same distribution of income held for the general election.
Among people who said they voted for Trump in the general election, 35 percent had household incomes under $50,000 per year (the figure was also 35 percent among non-Hispanic whites), almost exactly the percentage in NBC’s March 2016 survey. Trump’s voters weren’t overwhelmingly poor. In the general election, like the primary, about two thirds of Trump supporters came from the better-off half of the economy.
Ditto for education.
… among white people without college degrees who voted for Trump, nearly 60 percent were in the top half of the income distribution. In fact, one in five white Trump voters without a college degree had a household income over $100,000.
Observers have often used the education gap to conjure images of poor people flocking to Trump, but the truth is, many of the people without college degrees who voted for Trump were from middle- and high-income households. That’s the basic problem with using education to measure the working class.
Forget the narrative
In short, the narrative that attributes Trump’s victory to a “coalition of mostly blue-collar white and working-class voters” just doesn’t square with the 2016 election data. According to the election study, white non-Hispanic voters without college degrees making below the median household income made up only 25 percent of Trump voters. That’s a far cry from the working-class-fueled victory many journalists have imagined.
Practical political implications
We have been told that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was flawed in that it did not appeal to the working class voters who supported Trump. I’ve heard Democratic activists say that Dems need to craft messaging to appeal to those working class voters. But data reviewed here suggest that such a strategy will yield minimal returns for two reasons. First, the “working class voters” make up a small percentage of Trump’s base. Second, economic messaging seems unlikely to sway those who are already affluent and still supporting Trump. Those folks are not lacking subsistence needs; they are after tax cuts.