Earlier this week Donald Trump said something interesting about his vision for the Republican Party. Asked by Bloomberg’s Joshua Green what he thought the GOP would look like in coming years, Mr. Trump replied that he loved that question.
“Five, 10 years from now – different party,” Trump said. “You’re going to have a worker’s party. A party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years, that are angry.”
Perhaps Trump was talking about the GOP in terms of its policy focus. That might mean he sees it moving away from its emphasis on budget cuts and low tax rates to a more populist agenda of government support payments and protectionist tariffs.
But in terms of demographics, Trump’s late to the party, so to speak. By many measures Republicans are already a workers’ party. There’s one important qualification here though, and it’s racial. The GOP is a white workers’ party. Minority workers remain a solid Democratic constituency.
This trend predates Trump. Last year the data journalism site FiveThirtyEight examined the demographics of the US electorate to see which groups might be influential in 2016. One of their main conclusions: the white working class (defined as whites with a high school education or less) has become a GOP bulwark.
“In both 2008 and 2012, Republicans’ best group by far ... was white voters without college degrees,” wrote FiveThirtyEight’s David Wasserman last December. “The GOP carried that group by 14 percentage points in 2008 and a whopping 26 points in 2012.”
It used to be Democrats were the party of people who work with their hands. Republicans were the party of bankers and businessmen. Over the past 35 years or so, however, there’s been a slowly accelerating switch that Ron Brownstein, a political correspondent and editorial director for National Journal, has dubbed the “class inversion” of US politics.
Working class whites have shifted to the Republicans, while an increasing number of more highly educated whites – particularly women – have correspondingly become Democrats. Every Democratic presidential candidate since 2000 has won a higher percentage of the votes of college-educated than non-college-educated whites.
This inversion has been powered by the increasing importance of noneconomic issues, according to Brownstein. On everything from abortion to guns to immigration, illegal and otherwise, working class whites are more conservative than their more educated kin.
“The class inversion has gained strength election after election almost regardless of the nominees. But Clinton and Trump – in their bookended strengths and weaknesses – are unusually well-positioned to intensify it,” wrote Mr. Brownstein earlier this month.
And they have. Look at the latest ABC/Washington Post national poll: Trump leads by 52 to 38 percent among all voters with no college degree. Among white males with no college degree, Trump leads by a walloping 76 to 14 percent.
Why the split? The white working class sees Trump as their champion. Asked which candidate would best advance their economic interests, whites without a college education picked Trump by 35 percentage points, according to a separate ABC/Washington Post poll.
Trump’s got a much bigger lead on this question than stiff plutocrat Mitt Romney did in 2012.
Clinton, meanwhile, leads Trump by 57 to 33 percent among college-educated white women, according to ABC. This group is emerging as an important potential swing vote demographic for 2016.
But as noted above, if the Republican Party is increasingly a working class party, that does not include working class African-Americans and Hispanics. In terms of demographics, race trumps income. One measure shows how dependent the GOP is on white voters: 90 percent of those who cast votes in the Republican primaries were white.
Meanwhile, the white working class continues to shrink as a percentage of the American electorate. In each presidential election since 2008, whites without a college degree have declined by three points.
That does not mean demographics are destiny. Trump still has a path to victory that depends on a solid turnout of his core supporters. But his margin for error is small. Unexpected further erosion among higher-educated voters could be problematic for the GOP.