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US 2020 election: Donald Trump's grip on his white working class base is waning

Non-college educated white voters helped secure the 2016 Republican win. Will they remain loyal?

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In 2016, Donald Trump won a smaller percentage of votes than both his opponent, Hillary Clinton, and the losing Romney-Ryan Republican ticket of 2012. Despite that, he still staked out a victory that shocked pundits and pollsters alike.

That victory was gained through two routes. The first was by capitalising on intense dissatisfaction towards his opponent, dampening liberal and minority turnout in the process. And the second was rallying a vote concentrated in some of the key midwest swing states sympathetic to Trumpian rhetoric and protectionist ideals: America’s white working class.

In election cycles long gone, income was the key metric that most accurately foretold how a person would vote. Poorer voters would, by and large, opt for parties more disposed towards redistribution and the protection of labour rights. Richer voters would side with the fiscally conservative and pro-free market. 

With the significant growth of the middle class, however, that link has broken down somewhat. A great many electors in the US, UK and elsewhere are increasingly motivated by cultural and “identity” issues rather than the economy  even when economic policies have a direct impact on their lives.

This was one of the key reasons why many American white voters without a college education swung to Trump. They were not, primarily, making an economic choice, but rather one based disaffection with perceived establishmentarianism politics. In so doing they gave Trump the victory he needed in states previously taken for granted by the Clinton campaign: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. 

The link between white voters without a college education and tendency to vote Republican is stronger than ever
2016 result margin against share of the population that are white and without a college education (2018 data). Each dot represents a US county.

The correlation between voting Republican and being white and without a college degree isn’t entirely new. Rather, it got a lot more intense in 2016. As a demographic group, it has considerable sway: there are 90-something-million white Americans without a college degree.

That 90-something-million, however, represents an increasingly shrinking share of the American electorate. When Ronald Reagan secured his second term in 1984, non-college educated whites made up six-in-ten of those that voted. In the 30-plus years since, their importance as a voting bloc has fallen election-on-election. In 2016, they made up just one in three (34 per cent) of those that voted, and demographic projections indicate they’ll have fallen further in two weeks' time.

Non-college educated whites voted for Trump by a margin not seen since the hey-days of Ronald Reagan
White voters without a college education as a share of the voting population

Trump’s 2016 strategy of firing up America’s blue collar voters paid dividends. But given the shifting demographics, and the candidate he faces this time, will an appeal to this "base" prove just as profitable in 2020?

Despite attempts by Trump to tweet otherwise, Joe Biden is no Hillary Clinton. His consistent and stable lead against Trump suggests the Democrats' campaign has succeeded in both appeasing and enthusing the liberal base, while siphoning off vital blue-collar whites from the Trump column. 

[See also: US 2020: all the election latest from the New Statesman]

Four years ago Trump won 67 per cent of voting non-college-educated whites, an increase of 6pts on 2012, and also 6pts on 2004  the last election where a Republican won the popular vote. This was the highest performance of any Republican candidate amongst the demographic since Ronald Reagan. Polls this time round, however, project Trump to win the support of just 55 per cent of them, the lowest since figure 1996. 

If borne out, the Rep-Dem gap would narrow from 39pts in 2016 to 11pts today, and Joe Biden would end up giving the best performance for a Democratic candidate among America’s white working class since Bill Clinton in 1996. This national swing alone would be seismic, and enough to reverse all of Trump's wins in the midwest, and then some. 

Trump's problem with the base that once gave him victory comes from two sources. The first is the seemingly genuine appeal of Joe Biden, and the second is white women.

In earlier pieces I made many a comment that the Democratic campaign appeared to be waiting around for Trump to lose, rather than working for a Biden win. With two weeks to go it appears that strategy has evolved somewhat. Biden today sits as a candidate roundly approved by a majority of voters, with near one in five of Trump's 2016 base also giving off favourable sounds.

Four years ago Trump could boast of greater support among men than women. That's fairly typical for a Republican candidate, as was the margin of difference (despite the Democrats fielding a woman). In 2020, polls suggest Trump now trails among women to an eye-watering degree. The latest Marist poll for PBS/NPR has Biden projected to win 60 per cent of voting women, an increase of 6pts on Clinton's showing in 2016; and 47 per cent of men, an increase also of 6pts. 

On current modelling, Trump's lead among white voters without a college degree is expected to collapse from 39pts in 2016 to 11pts in 2020
Data sourced from 2016 exit polling and the New Statesman's US election modelling internals

Trump's 2020 woman problem is set to be decisive. Among white non-college educated men, Trump has, according to Marist, 59 per cent approval. Among white non-college educated women that falls to 46 per cent.

The president’s win four years ago was built on a base he needs to win again – and not just among men, but women. That seems highly unlikely. In 2016, more white women voted for Trump than did for Hillary Clinton. Polls forecast that trend to be reversed. Donald Trump may be on course to go from having one the best Republican performances among white America’s blue collar populace, to one of the worst: and if his base disappears, so do his chances of holding the presidency.

 Ben Walker is a data journalist at the New Statesman