There’s no denying that this election is unusual, but does it have the makings of a re-alignment—shifts in the demographic groups that disproportionately support each party? Donald Trump appears to have staked his electoral prospects on this possibility. Although many of Trump’s policies favor affluent Americans, he has focused his strategy on the Rust Belt, rails against corrupt elites, and even self-identifies as a blue-collar worker. Hillary Clinton promises tax hikes for the 1%, but also courts affluent voters with billionaire endorsements. One might therefore wonder if the relationship between Americans’ earnings and their political preferences is changing. Are Republicans winning over the poor? Are Democrats winning the rich? The answer may surprise you.
There is zero evidence that Trump has won over poor voters, but reasons to think that Democrats are winning over the rich.
Despite what you might have heard, poor voters—including poor whites—are a key Democratic constituency. People assume poor whites support the GOP, because the media routinely mis-identifies them as core Trump supporters and because poor states like Mississippi and Oklahoma are Republican, rich states like California and Illinois Democratic. But within states, poor Americans vote Democratic at higher rates than rich voters. In fact, the gap between rich and poor voters is larger in poor states. In Mississippi and Oklahoma, Republicans get elected because rich residents overwhelmingly support them, not because poor voters do.
Trump’s effort to flip the white working class is nothing new—previous Republicans like Nixon and Reagan tried it. Some think blue-collar “Reagan Democrats” defected due to racial animus, fear of cultural change, and dislocation bred by the breakdown of unions and other working-class institutions. In fact, white voters in general have grown more Republican, but there is no reason to think that poor Americans are especially racist or reactionary, and particularly in rust-belt regions the collapse of local business communities has also bred much social dislocation among the affluent. Indeed, the voting gap between rich and poor whites has grown since Reagan. Even evangelical Christians split evenly between Democrats and Republicans at lower incomes and become reliably Republican only at middle and high incomes.
In historical context, Trump falls squarely within Republican politics as usual: thus far, he has won over richer voters in poor counties and states. The median household income of Trump’s primary supporters was $72k, above the median household income of all Americans and white Americans (respectively, $52k and $62k). Polls suggest that his supporters remain relatively affluent. Trump does poll well among less educated voters, but that is not new either. Since the 60s, professionals—who often hold advanced degrees—have trended Democratic while business managers and the self-employed have trended Republican.
Conversely, the evidence suggests that Democrats are becoming the party of the rich. Polls show Clinton winning voters making above $100k and even millionaires (these were conducted before Trump’s sexual assault revelations). This makes sense as rich Americans are increasingly educated and live in urban, coastal locales—fertile ground for Democrats. Some polls also suggest that affluent voters prioritize noneconomic issues and the overall economy over GOP preoccupations like low taxes. Obama also won voters making above $200k, a modern-day Democratic first. Ordinarily, one might expect Clinton to do the same, leaving only middle incomes to the GOP.
But this unusual election should give us pause. Polls often make political opinions appear more fixed and settled then they are in reality. In a book about the 2008 and 2012 elections, I found that many people have conflicting beliefs, which change in salience over the election cycle. Most return to their traditional preferences before election day, but only after presidential candidates reigned them back in by closing their campaigns with familiar economic arguments.
Consider how the election climate impacted three voters I interviewed before the 2008 primaries: Adam and Jerome, traditionally Republican business managers and Lisa, a Democratic former manufacturing worker. All three wavered in their traditional party support.
Like many affluent voters, Adam and Jerome detested partisanship and wished for more compromise in politics—views reinforced by their participation in various local civic initiatives. “It should be like in everyday life: you give and take,” Adam said. “Most people are basically the same, [but politics has them] hating themselves.” Jerome agreed: “We have more to gain from working together than fighting. I don’t see enough of that in politics.” Both men saw these views as incompatible with partisanship, identified as Independents and liked Obama, among others.
Lisa identified with Democrats, champions of the down-trodden. But she was nervous about Obama. “I don’t like him,” she said. “A lot of people won’t vote for him because he’s colored.”
But before the election, the McCain and Obama campaigns focused on taxes, government programs, and other pocketbook issues that differentially impact rich and poor. So did the micro-scandals of the day: McCain’s inability to recall all his houses, Joe the Plumber, and Cindy McCain’s outfits.
This atmosphere returned Adam and Lisa to the partisan fold.
“The Obama campaign is using class warfare!” Adam stammered. His desire for political compromise was temporarily eclipsed by his affluent self-identification.
Lisa too saw politics as a contest between the haves and have-nots and complained of Democrats who saw Obama as anti-white. “I don’t see it that way,” she said. “They say on TV that [Obama’s] wife don’t like white people and I’m like, ‘Oh please, how do you know?’ Now John McCain’s first lady, she obviously is a tight-ass—that’s a fact,” Lisa snorted. “She wore a $100,000 outfit to the Republican convention. That must be a nice thing to have!”
Only Jerome retained his original preferences, although he too worried that Democrats were running on “the class warfare stuff.” Still, he gave Obama a chance: “He’ll listen to people and bring them in on things,” Jerome said, contributing to Obama’s win among the rich.
In this election, the evidence points to Democrats holding the poor and making inroads among the rich. But historical precedent depends on candidates who close with familiar economic appeals. One often gets the impression that this is how Republicans other than Trump would like to have it—witness Mike Pence’s effort to focus on pocketbook issues in the VP debate. But Trump has not. He’s instead doubled down on dark populist conspiracies about outsiders and corrupt elites, attacks on his own party, and general all-around craziness. These are uncharted waters. It seems likely that Trump will lose, but one wonders if he’ll do so by badly losing traditional Democratic constituencies and underperforming with traditionally Republican ones or by assembling a unique (nonmajority) coalition. The evidence thus far suggests the former, but it is plausible that Trump’s unprecedented rhetoric will create irregular patterns of last-minute polarization, producing the latter.