(Getty/Mark Wallheiser)

New election theory: Did "working-class whites" switch from Obama to Trump because the economy was better?

New voting data suggests that some white working-class voters are only Democrats when they're down and out


Amanda Marcotte
March 30, 2017 12:59PM (UTC)

After much contentious debate about how it is that Donald Trump won three crucial states — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — that were expected to be easy wins for Hillary Clinton in 2016, Nate Cohn of The New York Times has what feels like a definitive analysis. It wasn't, as Cohn argued, that turnout was especially low. It's that white voters turned out at higher rates than usual and critically a small but significant number of white working-class voters who had supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 didn't show up for Hillary Clinton this time around.

"Over all, almost one in four of President Obama’s 2012 white working-class supporters defected from the Democrats in 2016," Cohn wrote, "either supporting Mr. Trump or voting for a third-party candidate."

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To be clear, the effect was small. But it was undeniably significant in an election that was ultimately decided by about 80,000 votes in those three states. These results may help justify the scads of stories focused on white working-class Trump supporters, which have grown so numerous that one might wonder if there are any other kinds of voters out there to talk to.

At first blush, these numbers might seem to justify a narrative that's grown up since Clinton's electoral defeat: Economic insecurity is driving these working-class voters away from the Democrats into the welcoming arms of Trump, who has wooed them to the dark side by blaming immigrants and people of color for their economic woes.

It's a nice story because, if true, it suggests a simple solution: If Democrats pushed for a more robust social safety net and strong jobs programs, then these voters would be lured back by their better angels to vote for greater economic security and would reject the racist agenda offered by Trump. It's a narrative that allows people to believe that this country's racism problem isn't that bad, allows urban liberal journalists to romanticize the white-working class a bit and offers the reassuring fantasy that there's a straightforward solution to the Democratic Party's woes.

Unfortunately, there's no reason to believe that this is true. If anything, the 2016 elections disprove this theory. As troubling as this may be to accept, I would argue that the 2016 election results suggest that a recovering economy allowed this small but significant number of voters to indulge their racism and sexism because they didn't have to worry as much about their economic futures. These numbers may indicate that Democrats don't lose because of economic insecurity — but because economic security creates complacency, which can lead to a Republican victory.

While there are some negative economic indicators from Obama's presidency, the overall story of the past eight years is one about Americans becoming more economically stable. The introduction of the Affordable Care Act, with the Medicaid expansion, helped bring stability to white working-class communities in particular, such as in a Kentucky county that saw its uninsured rate decline by 60 percent. Access to health care is a critical aspect to helping people feel secure, something that's frequently overlooked by those touting the narrative of "economic insecurity."

The Obama-era job recovery was not as perfect as any of us would have liked but was strong enough to make it difficult for me to believe that people felt more insecure in 2016 than they did when Obama was first elected. As this NPR story from January showed, the Obama years were marked by a growing job market, rising wages and more access to full-time employment.

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It could be better, absolutely. But these numbers, along with the drastic decline in the uninsured rates, make it tough to swallow the idea that large numbers of Americans feel unstable. Stuck, maybe. Wanting more, absolutely. But not afraid and insecure, as they were when they elected Obama during the devastating economic crash that happened on President George W. Bush's watch.

When it comes to the argument that Democrats can win by promising more robust social and jobs programs, that's exactly what Hillary Clinton did. As Vox demonstrated in December, most of Clinton's campaign speeches were focused on jobs and the economy, not on "identity politics," as her detractors claimed. Her campaign platform was the most progressive in history  and included support for a $15 minimum wage and adding a public option to Obamacare.

The grim fact of the matter is that a certain proportion of white voters break for the Democrats when they feel desperate and need the Democrats to save them from Republican mismanagement. Once the Democrats get things stable, though, those voters go right back to voting their racist and sexist resentments.

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As Zack Beauchamp at Vox pointed out earlier this month, the United States is hardly the only country that has a segment of citizens who vote for liberals exclusively when they're down and out.

The problem is that a lot of data suggests that countries with more robust welfare states tend to have stronger far-right movements. Providing white voters with higher levels of economic security does not tamp down their anxieties about race and immigration — or, more precisely, it doesn’t do it powerfully enough. For some, it frees them to worry less about what it’s in their wallet and more about who may be moving into their neighborhoods or competing with them for jobs.

It seems that the same dynamic of the Franklin D. Roosevelt years, when he won re-election three times because the voters wanted Democrats to rescue them from the worst years of the Great Depression, is still in play.

The good news is that these fair-weather voters are small in number, as evidenced by the fact that Clinton got nearly 3 million more votes than Trump. The bad news is such voters are concentrated in Rust Belt states that have a disproportionate impact on election outcomes.

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The great irony is that Trump may do more to turn the political tide than anything the Democrats are likely to do on their own because he has the capacity to do so much economic damage that these voters will come running back next time around.

Democrats need to campaign on jobs and a robust social safety net because it's the right thing to do, not because it will win over this small sliver of white working-class voters. Because it probably won't. What it will do is win over younger voters, voters of color, urban voters and the majority of working-class people of all races who already support the Democrats. But it's time to let go of the fantasy that these swing voters can be permanently moved to the blue side and instead focus more resources more effectively on turning out more of the voters that Democrats already have.


Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. Her new book, "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself," is out now. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte

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