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Republicans Really Are the Party of the Working Class
Why Doesn’t That Bother the Democrats More?
Republicans are, in a strict quantitative sense, the party of the American working class. That is, they currently get more working-class (noncollege) votes than the Democrats. That was true in 2022 when Republicans carried the nationwide working-class House vote by 13 points. That was true in 2020, when Trump carried the nationwide working-class presidential vote by 4 points over Biden. Moreover, modeled estimates by the States of Change project indicate that Trump carried the working-class vote in 35 out of 50 states, including in critical states for the Democrats like Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, as well as in states that are slipping away from the party like Florida, Iowa, Ohio and Texas.
Another way of looking at this trend is by Congressional district. Currently Democrats dominate the more affluent districts while Republicans are cleaning up in the poorer districts. Marcy Kaptur, who represents Ohio’s working-class 9th district and is the longest-serving female member of the House in American history, says of this pattern:
You could question yourself and say, well, the blue districts are the wealthiest districts, so it shows that the Democrats are doing better to lift people's incomes. The other way you could look at it is: how is it possible that Republicans are representing the majority of people who struggle? How is that possible?
How indeed. Kaptur has a two page chart that arrays Congressional districts from highest median income to lowest with partisan control color-coded. The first page is heavily dominated by blue but the second, poorer page is a sea of red. You can access the chart here. It’s really quite striking. Overall, Republicans represent 152 of the 237 Congressional seats where the district median income trails the national figure.
The same pattern of Republican domination of the working-class vote appears to be developing as we move toward 2024. The latest poll for which an overall college/noncollege split is available is the March Harvard/Harris poll. That poll, in which Trump has a small lead over Biden in a hypothetical 2024 matchup, has Trump carrying the working-class vote by 10 points. In a DeSantis-Biden matchup, DeSantis has a similar lead over Biden and an identical 10-point advantage among working-class voters. (There is a slightly more recent Quinnipiac poll that also includes these 2024 matchups, but the public materials only provide a white college/noncollege split.). Earlier polls from this year—where data are available—replicate this pattern of Trump and DeSantis leading Biden among working-class voters.
Why doesn’t this bother Democrats more? After all, they are America’s party of the left and were historically America’s party of the working class. I think part of the reason is that the largest part of the working class, the white working class, is now viewed quite negatively throughout much of the party. They can be put, as Hillary Clinton unforgettably phrased it, in a “basket of deplorables”—“racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic”—and therefore justly ignored by right-thinking Democrats.
Democrats also comfort themselves that they still have very strong support among the nonwhite working class. But of course strong support among a sector of the working class does not make Democrats the party of the overall working class, however much Democrats may wish that to be so. Moreover, in recent elections Democrats’ hold on the nonwhite working class has also been slipping, which is contributing to the Democrats’ widening deficit among the working class as a whole.
In addition, the very supposition that lies behind the dismissal of the white working class is itself suspect. A recent column by Tom Edsall highlights the work of political scientists Justin Grimmer, William Marble and Cole Tanigawa-Lau on estimating the contribution of voting blocs to Trump’s support in 2016 and 2020. In a recent paper, they write:
Decomposing the change in support observed in the ANES [American National Election Study] data, we show that respondents in 2016 and 2020 reported more moderate views, on average, than in previous elections. As a result, Trump improved the most over previous Republicans by capturing the votes of a larger number of people who report racially moderate views.
Grimmer expanded on this point in Edsall’s article:
Our findings provide an important correction to a popular narrative about how Trump won office. Hillary Clinton argued that Trump supporters could be placed in a “basket of deplorables.” And election-night pundits and even some academics have claimed that Trump’s victory was the result of appealing to white Americans’ racist and xenophobic attitudes. We show this conventional wisdom is (at best) incomplete. Trump’s supporters were less xenophobic than prior Republican candidates’, less sexist, had lower animus to minority groups, and lower levels of racial resentment. Far from deplorables, Trump voters were, on average, more tolerant and understanding than voters for prior Republican candidates.
To say this is not how most Democrats think about the Trump-voting white working class is to considerably understate the case. Yet that is what the Grimmer et. al. data say. Notably, the other academics canvassed by Edsall can find little fault with their analysis, despite the post-2016 role of political science in cementing the conventional wisdom on racially resentful Trump supporters. One might summarize their reaction as “now that I think about it, these guys are probably right.” Better late than never I suppose.
All this suggests the Democrats should not be quite so blasé about no longer being the party of the American working class. That they are not represents a real failing on their part, not a noble stand against the barbarians at the gates. Much in American politics going forward will depend on whether Republicans can further strengthen their hold on the working class or whether Democrats can reclaim some of their lost support and become, once again, the party of America’s working class.
Consider what might happen if Republicans do make further progress among working-class voters. Between 2016 and 2020, the Democratic advantage among the nonwhite working class slipped quite a bit while the Democratic deficit among white working-class voters actually improved slightly. But what if both parts of the working class moved in tandem against the Democrats in 2024 and beyond?
This can be tested using States of Change data. Working-class preferences by detailed subgroup (race, gender, age) nationally and within states for 2020 were estimated and then moved toward the GOP by 10 margin points (+5 Republican/-5 Democratic). These preferences (with all else from 2020 held constant) were then applied to the projected structure of the eligible electorate in 2024 and subsequent elections.
In 2024, this shift toward Republicans among the overall working class produces a solid 312-226 GOP electoral vote majority. The states that move into the GOP column are Michigan, Pennsylvania and Nevada by 3 points, Arizona and Georgia by 4 points and Wisconsin by 5 points. Republicans also carry the popular vote, albeit by just a point.
Thereafter, the GOP starts to lose the popular vote but continues to win the electoral vote through 2040. If that doesn’t concentrate the mind among Democrats, I don’t know what will.