Can white working class voters carry Donald Trump to White House?

Donald Trump's appeal to working-class whites is partly racial. But the rhetoric turns off at least as many voters as it attracts, making Trump's route to the White House difficult.   

Stephen Lam/Reuters
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump recite the Pledge of Allegiance during a campaign rally in Redding, Calif., June 3.

Can working-class whites carry Donald Trump all the way to the White House?

After all, working-class whites, particularly men, played a key role in Mr. Trump’s primary successes. While the billionaire reality star often won pluralities across all income groups, he did best among lower-income, less educated white voters. They were the star player of his coalition team, to abuse a sports metaphor.

And now Trump appears locked into a general election strategy that hinges on his continued appeal to this group. That’s one of the implications of Trump’s continued insistence that US District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who’s overseeing a lawsuit involving Trump University, is biased against him due to the Indiana-born judge's Mexican heritage.

Trump’s not softening his rhetoric or turning toward the center to compete with Democrat Hillary Clinton. Instead he’s doubling down on racially tinged language. His core supporters love the way he talks, seeing it as defiance of a US culture steeped in political correctness. Why change now?

Because it’s an approach that has a high risk of failure, that’s why. Working-class whites are becoming a smaller and smaller slice of the electorate. Moreover, the political stuff they like – bombastic attacks on Mexicans, Muslims, and Megyn Kelly – can turn off minorities and college-educated whites, particularly women.

Can Trump best Reagan's appeal to whites?

That doesn’t mean Trump’s doomed. He might win by flipping Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and other Rust Belt states from red to blue. They have populations that are whiter and less prosperous than the coastal Democratic strongholds.

But the numbers make that development look unlikely, too. If Trump does win, it will be because he did much better with whites, and particularly poorer ones, than any recent presidential candidate, up to and including Ronald Reagan.

Let’s back up a bit and start throwing around some numbers to illustrate the situation. We’ll start with total votes: Trump will wrap up GOP primary season having garnered about 12.5 million votes. That’s a lot, and a lot more than pundits predicted he’d win when he entered the race. But it’s a fraction of what he needs to beat Hillary Clinton. In 2012, Mitt Romney got 61 million votes in the general election – and, of course, lost.

But Trump has a core group of supporters on which to build to try and reach that number. They are white voters without college degrees. It’s a group otherwise known as working-class whites, or less educated whites. (Pollsters find these qualifiers to be good proxies for each other.)

Trump won this demographic by some 20 points over Ted Cruz. In general election polls they favor Republican Trump over Democrat Clinton by 40 points or more. As a group, they are far more enthusiastic about Trump than they ever were about Mitt Romney. In 2012 they were lukewarm about the latter. In 2016 they see the billionaire reality star/real estate mogul as their champion.

Yet if working class whites are the star performers of the Trump coalition, they are performers whose political presence is ebbing.

In 1980, whites without a college degree constituted 65 percent of the US electorate. They were the engine that drove US politics. Today, they are 36 percent of the electorate. That is a huge drop in relative strength.

And they continue to shrink by two or three percentage points every presidential election cycle as the share of minorities, particularly Hispanics, increases. This demographic phenomenon is occurring in all 50 states, though it varies in different regions.

In addition, the words Trump uses to evoke the restoration of jobs and status for some groups have a very different effect on others. Working-class whites may be nostalgic for the 1950s and 1960s, but many African-Americans are not. Working-class white men may enjoy Trump’s frank appraisals of women’s appearances, but many women do not. Less educated whites may believe Trump is going to get Mexico to pay for that wall, but more educated whites do not. In rallying one segment of the electorate Trump may be repelling others.

The result might be an electorate riven by class and gender division. We’ll illustrate this with more numbers: In a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, Trump led Clinton among white men without college degrees by 76 to 14 percent. But among white women with college degrees, Clinton led Trump by 57 to 33.

Educated women are key audience

Unlike working-class white men, highly educated white women are growing as a share of the electorate. They’ve increased from about 11 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2012. Yes, they’re now a bigger group than their gender and education opposite, maybe the biggest and most important white swing group there is. Combine them with minorities, and you’ve got close to half of all American voters.

And that’s a problem for Trump. Versus Clinton, he’s losing among all those groups, big time. Latinos? He’s behind by 65 to 18 percent, according to a new Quinnipiac survey. Blacks? He’s behind by 93 to 4.

Oof. That’s why Trump’s focus on whites, and particularly working class whites, to the exclusion of other demographic groups is an approach with a low probability of success.

But “low” isn’t the same as “zero.” It remains possible for Trump to win despite his current lack of appeal to minorities. His path to victory is narrow and rocky, but it is there.

It depends on expanding the electorate by increasing turnout. In short, Trump has to rouse white people who usually stay home on Election Day to get off the couch and vote.

It’s happened before. In 1992, bucking the long-term demographic trend, the white share of the electorate actually bumped up, increasing by two percentage points. Why? One letter and two words: H. Ross Perot. The Texas billionaire’s eccentric third-party run attracted many whites who hadn’t bothered to vote in previous elections.

Seventy percent of non-Hispanic whites voted in 1992. The corresponding number for 2012 was just 64 percent. That means there are about 8.8 million “missing” white voters in the US, figures David Wasserman of the data journalism site FiveThirtyEight. More of them are blue-collar workers than, say, white-collar Evangelicals, Mr. Wasserman writes.

Trump, like Mr. Perot, is a billionaire espousing out-of-the-mainstream policies with a populist touch. For him, turning out these missing voters has to be job one. In 2012 Mitt Romney fell about 5 million votes short of victory. Those missing white voters, many of them working class, could give Trump a big boost as he tries to make up that shortfall.

A candidate of 'white nostalgia'

The reasons for the enthusiasm surrounding Trump are complex. Partly they are rooted in economics. Stagnant wages, trade deals, and technological development have slammed working-class incomes. Trump promises to reverse all that with the force of his personality, to the point where America is “winning” again.

Partly – maybe more than partly – the enthusiasm for Trump is rooted in racial attitudes. White working class Trump supporters are disproportionately likely to resent African-Americans and Hispanics, associate the word “violent” with Islam, and believe President Obama is a Muslim.

Wrap this together, and what you have is the candidate of white nostalgia, writes Ron Brownstein, political correspondent and editorial director for National Journal. Trump is promising frustrated less-prosperous white voters that he will restore their wages and cultural importance, while bringing back jobs from China, deporting illegal immigrants to Mexico, and restoring American primacy.

These promises “touch the pervasive sense of loss among many of his supporters – the belief that the changes molding modern America have marginalized them economically, demographically, and culturally,” writes Mr. Brownstein. “These words allow him to evoke a hazy earlier time when American life worked better for the overwhelmingly white, heavily blue-collar coalition now drawn to him.”

There’s one big caveat here, though. The missing white voters are disproportionately grouped in red states Trump is already the favorite to win, according to FiveThirtyEight data. White turnout hasn’t dropped that much in key battleground states, including the Rust Belt of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.

There are enough missing white voters in Florida, and possibly Nevada and Ohio, to tip these battlegrounds to Trump if he can get them to the polls.

“Everywhere else, Trump would likely need 2016 white turnout to outpace historic 1992 levels to succeed,” Wasserman writes.

Again, that’s not impossible. It’s improbable, but many pundits figured that Trump’s nomination victory was anywhere from unlikely to unthinkable. In this election campaign the unforeseen has already occurred. It could happen again.

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