Republican leaders have been hailing a class realignment of the parties. “We are a working class party now. That’s the future,” tweeted Sen. Josh Hawley on election night 2020. In February, Sen. Rick Scott told audiences at CPAC, “We will not win the future by trying to go back to where the Republican Party used to be. If we do, we will lose the working base that President Trump so animated.” And at the end of March, Republicans circulated a strategy memo titled, “Cementing GOP as the Working Class Party,” which argued that “President Trump didn’t just shift each party’s role — he caused a paradigm reversal.”
Political analysts have widely embraced this view that Donald Trump uniquely attracted working-class voters to the GOP, in particular White working-class Americans. In 2016, one journalist marveled at the “working-class white people who make up the bulk of Trump’s fan base.” Another observer tried to make sense of “How Trump Seduced the White Working Class.” The day after the 2016 election, the New York Times declared, “Donald J. Trump won the presidency by riding an enormous wave of support among white working-class voters.” Again and again over the last four years, pundits have wondered if anything would break Trump’s spell on White working-class voters.
But is any of this true? Did Trump really bring a wave of White working-class voters over to the Republican camp, reshaping his party and American elections? In a new published study, we looked at survey data on voting behavior going back to the 1980s. The answer is no. In fact, our research shows the Trump’s term in office stalled a long-term trend of White working-class voters moving to the Republican Party.
It’s time to bust the myth: Most Trump voters were not working class.
How we did our research
Knowing whether Donald Trump uniquely appealed to working-class Whites is actually more difficult than you might think, largely because there’s actually no universally-accepted definition of “working class.” When people debate whether Trump won over White workers, they may be talking past one another, deciding who counts as “working class” based on entirely different criteria — like education levels, income or types of work.
In our research, we often define working-class Americans as people who earn a living doing manual labor, service industry and clerical jobs. However, most major political opinion surveys don’t include that kind of information about voters’ occupations; instead, they report on factors like household income and education level. To study voters, we instead define the working class as people without a college degree — which many journalists focus on — who are in the bottom half of the household income distribution — since many Americans who don’t finish college still go on to earn high salaries.
We turned to data from the American National Election Studies, one of the most respected and longest running nationally representative surveys of public opinion in the United States, a source commonly used by political scientists.
Thanks to Trump’s rhetoric, Asian Americans are moving toward the Democratic party
Among GOP voters, working-class Whites make up the same percentage they did in 2012
If we define the working class this way, there’s no real evidence that the Trump era changed the demographic makeup of GOP voters. At least since the 1980s, White working-class Americans have never made up a majority of Republican voters in presidential elections. The share of Republicans who are White and working class has increased slightly in the last few election cycles, but not under Trump. The biggest single-year increase in the White working-class’s share of GOP voters came in 2012, when Mitt Romney was the party’s nominee. Since Romney, the share of White working-class people among GOP voters hasn’t budged. Lower-income White voters without college degrees aren’t a majority of Republican voters, and they aren’t increasing as a share of GOP voters.
Among working-class Whites, Trump’s presidency actually reversed the decades-long trend of increasing support for Republicans
Of course, looking at the GOP as a whole can overlook important changes happening within the White working class itself. When we focus on White working-class voters, we see a more complicated picture — but one that still casts doubt on the idea that Trump realigned American politics with his unique appeal to White workers.
Most White working-class voters cast their ballots for Trump in 2016 and 2020. But most also cast ballots for Mitt Romney in 2012, George W. Bush in 2004, George H.W. Bush in 1988, and Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. Other reliable data sources suggest most also voted for John McCain in 2008.
Contrary to the idea that Trump rearranged the political landscape, White working-class support for Republican presidential candidates has been slowly increasing since 1992.
That is, until 2020. Last year’s data suggest that after Trump’s term in office, the rate of White working-class support for the Republican presidential candidate fell for the first time since 2008 — and possibly even earlier, depending on which data source we use. Trump’s presidency actually reversed the long-term trend of growing GOP support within this voting bloc.
Why the GOP can’t quit Trump
Trump and the future of the GOP
Did Trump’s campaigns realign American politics, cementing the GOP as the party of White working-class Americans? The available evidence doesn’t provide much support for this splashy interpretation. To the contrary, data on Republican voters and White working-class Americans suggest that little has changed since Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination in 2016.
But if major political parties take a renewed interest in the problems facing working people, the myth that Trump appealed to White working-class Americans may end up helping that group nevertheless.
Nicholas Carnes is Creed C. Black Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. He is the author of White-Collar Government (University of Chicago Press, 2013) and The Cash Ceiling (Princeton University Press, 2018).
Noam Lupu is associate professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Party Brands in Crisis (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and coeditor of Campaigns and Voters in Developing Democracies (University of Michigan Press, 2019).