Trump Stops Working for the Working Class
Trump’s grip on working-class white voters has slipped – perhaps permanently.
Former President Donald J. Trump has launched his bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. There are many barriers between him and a win. Among others, they include ongoing investigations and lawsuits; blame for backing several big losers in the 2022 midterms; and, just over the horizon, heavyweight rivals like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence. Supposedly, however, Trump can’t be counted out because he remains exceptionally popular with the largest single voting bloc in America; namely, white voters without college degrees—that is, working-class white voters.
Until the turn of the century, working-class whites were an absolute majority of the electorate. When President Ronald Reagan was reelected in 1984, they comprised 61 percent of all voters. In 2016 and 2020 they were only 34 percent and 35 percent of the voting electorate respectively. Even so, working-class whites still cast a plurality of all ballots in those elections. In the 2022 midterms, they crept up to 39 percent of the voting electorate, followed by white college graduates (34 percent); minority citizens without college degrees (18 percent); and minority citizens with college degrees (9 percent).
At least in national elections, working-class white voters have become a reliably Republican constituency. In the 2010 midterms, which did result in a “red wave” unlike in 2022, working-class whites split 63 percent for Republicans versus 33 percent for Democrats. In the 2022 midterms, working-class whites broke 66 percent for Republicans versus 32 percent for Democrats.
But on closer inspection, in 2022, Trump-touted, Make America Great Again (MAGA)-messaged GOP candidates like Ohio’s J.D. Vance, Pennsylvania’s Doug Mastriano, and Georgia’s Herschel Walker, actually fared less well with working-class white voters than Republican candidates who had distanced themselves from Trump, dissed him, or been denounced by him.
To start with Ohio: Incumbent Republican Governor Mike DeWine received a million-plus more votes than were received by his Democratic challenger, Nan Whaley. Working-class whites were 46 percent of Ohio’s electorate. They broke 72 percent to 27 percent for DeWine, who ran with no backing from Trump. Indeed, after DeWine’s victory, he received a congratulatory call from Democratic President Joe Biden.
In contrast, Ohio’s Republican senatorial candidate, J.D. Vance, was a Trump-endorsed, MAGA-tailored candidate with a personal narrative made to magnetize working-class white voters to his side. A half-decade and one feature-length Hollywood movie ago, Vance, a Yale Law School graduate employed by a Silicon Valley investment firm, bolted to public attention with his bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. As he tells us therein, his “dirt poor” grandparents migrated to Ohio from Kentucky’s Appalachia region. They built “a middle-class family,” but could not escape “abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma.” But despite that legacy “hanging around your neck,” he preached, “working-class boys like me” can still make it in America.
Yet, for all that, Vance’s vote-share among working-class whites was actually a point below the national average for all Republican candidates (66 percent). And even though Vance handily defeated his Democratic challenger, Representative Tim Ryan, he still received upwards of10 percent less of the working-class white vote than did DeWine.
Likewise, in Pennsylvania, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro, the state’s top 2022 vote-getter, received about 3 million votes. That was about 768,000 more votes than were received by his heavily Trump-supported opponent, Republican Doug Mastriano. By contrast, Dr. Mehmet Oz, the state’s Republican senatorial candidate, had only episodic support from Trump. Oz, a one-time top heart surgeon who was best known for his “Dr. Oz” television show, closed his campaign with television ads denouncing “extremism on both sides.” Oz received nearly 250,000 more votes statewide than Mastriano did.
Oz graciously and promptly conceded the race to Democrat John Fetterman, the state’s sitting Lieutenant Governor. Fetterman hails from a wealthy family, holds a Harvard graduate degree, and suffered a debilitating stroke during the campaign. Yet, big, bald, tattooed, and hoodie-wearing, he artfully cultivated an image as a Keystone State populist and courted the working-class white voters who ended up being 47 percent of Pennsylvania’s voting electorate. Still, even against Fetterman, Trump-lite Oz came closer to attracting the national average GOP yield with working-class whites than did Trumped-up Mastriano (56 percent).
In Georgia, the Trump-championed Republican senatorial candidate, Herschel Walker, and incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock, ran neck and neck to a run-off. Both Walker and Warnock are Black. Working-class whites were 34 percent of the Georgia electorate, much lower than in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but they still made up the Peach State’s largest voting bloc. Walker, a football living legend, yielded a whopping 79 percent of the working-class white vote; Brian Kemp, the state’s Trump-derided incumbent governor, yielded a still more whopping 83 percent of it.
And what about Trump himself? Haven’t working-class white voters favored Trump by unprecedented margins?
In a word, no. In "The White Working Class and the 2016 Election," political scientists Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu painstakingly analyzed all of the relevant survey and voting data. They found no evidence that "Trump himself uniquely mobilized the white working class." Take a look at the table below, adapted from their April 14, 2021 summary of the study for The Washington Post.
The GOP Presidential Candidate's Share of the White Working-Class Vote
We see the GOP losing white working-class voters in the 1990s, regaining them in the 2000s, followed by first Mitt Romney and then Donald Trump attracting them a tad above levels not seen since Ronald Reagan’s reelection win in 1984.
When Trump ran for reelection in 2020, fully half of all white working-class voters had an unfavorable opinion of him. In 2022, 43 percent of white working-class voters had an unfavorable opinion of him. It is by no means certain that Trump will prove more popular with GOP presidential primary voters than his most likely challengers.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, arguably Trump’s top challenger for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, won reelection in 2022 with more than 4.6 million votes. Working-class whites were 39 percent of the state’s voting electorate. DeSantis won 66 percent of them. That is the national average for GOP candidates in 2022, and exactly the same fraction of those Florida voters that Trump won in 2020.
Trump, now a Florida resident, has dubbed DeSantis “DeSanctimonious” and warned him not to run for president. But that warning comes at a time when Trump’s popularity, including such special appeal as he has ever actually had among working-class white voters, could be waning.
The plural of anecdote is not analysis, but most of my own older lifelong friends and relatives are working-class whites. Many of them made the three-step trek from urban Democrat to Reagan Democrat to suburban Republican. Most voted for Trump in 2016. Some did so again in 2020. They liked the pre-pandemic Trump economy. They credited him for the rapid development of the Covid-19 vaccines. But, albeit to varying degrees, they cooled on him after the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.
Still, generally speaking, it was never just Trump’s policies but also his outsized reality TV persona that attracted them. They lapped up his rhetorical campaign schtick, like “Little Marco” (his mocking moniker for Senator Marco Rubio), “Lying Ted” (his not-nice name for Senator Ted Cruz), “Sleepy Joe” (his sideswipe at President Joe Biden), and such.
But “Desanctimonious”? Many people need a dictionary to decipher that dig. So if Trump does fail to win the GOP nomination for president, maybe that anti-DeSantis barb might mark the moment when he lost his everyman rhetorical touch and let his grip on working-class white voters, which was never really exceptionally tight in the first place, slip for keeps.
John J. DiIulio, Jr. has taught at several Ivy League universities and is coauthor of American Government: Institutions and Policies (Cengage), now in its 17th edition.
Image: A construction working sits on a beam. (Unsplash: Jason Richard)
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