“Economic anxiety” is an insufficient explanation for Donald Trump’s presidency

“Economic anxiety” is an insufficient explanation for Donald Trump’s presidency
Source: Tom Brenner, Reuters
If economic concerns were a driver of Trump’s support, it stands to reason his base would have been relatively diverse. Here is what the numbers reveal.

After the 2016 election, the shellshocked political pundit class that had failed to foresee former President Donald Trump’s victory rushed to explain the improbable result. They quickly settled on a prevailing narrative: Trump’s tough talk and “America first” rhetoric appealed to working class voters – white ones, at least.

It wasn’t an idea that came out of the blue. During the 2016 election, multiple media outlets published articles on Trump’s appeal to the white working class. The New Yorker wrote in May 2016, “no Republican candidate … made as specific an appeal to the economic anxieties and social resentments of white Americans as Trump has.”

In March of that year, The Washington Post asserted, “In state after state, a recurrent question of the 2016 campaign has been how much two powerful social forces, economic anxiety and racial anxiety, are driving support vote for Donald Trump. There is a good deal of evidence that both factors are at play in the Republican presidential primary races.”

Both outlets alluded to another factor being at play – “social resentments” in The New Yorker’s phrasing, “racial anxiety” according to the Post – but neither went so far as to label that factor “racism.”

The Post cited polling in which 40% of Trump supporters said they were “struggling economically,” but 43% said they felt whites were “losing out because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics.” GOP primary voters were more likely to support Trump if they held the view that white people were losing out to other races. Economic struggles were less indicative of Trump’s support.

Nonetheless, the postelection narrative solidified around two ideas: Trump spoke to the “economic anxiety” of the white working class and Democrats failed to appeal to that same group. That Trump received more of the white working class vote in 2016 (and 2020) does seemingly support that interpretation.

Even some Democrats have been willing to concede that Trump speaks to the working class better than their own party. Andrew Yang, the billionaire who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination on a Universal Basic Income platform, recently called their lack of appeal to the working class “a fundamental problem for the Democratic Party.”

Others, though, have been skeptical of such analysis. Deriding claims of “economic anxiety” has become a common ironic meme online. People of color have frequently been the ones arguing that Trump far more often provokes racial hatred than provides substantial economic policies that could help financially uncertain voters.

An in-depth examination of voting trends certainly complicates the “economic anxiety” narrative. For one thing, both former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Joe Biden did better with lower income voters than Trump. Also, if economic concerns were a driver of Trump’s support, it stands to reason his base would have been relatively diverse.

Here is what the numbers reveal.

The 2016 election demographics

In August 2018, the Pew Research Center published one of the most detailed demographic breakdowns of the 2016 electorate. Based on verified voters, the report provides a more accurate picture of voter trends than the exit polling upon which so much immediate analysis had been based.

In broad strokes, the Pew report confirms what was known almost immediately: Trump did better with men, white voters and older voters, whereas his opponent, Clinton, had much stronger support among Black and Hispanic voters, as well as younger voters and women overall. The report also confirmed that Trump won both white men and women.

After racial and gender breakdowns, the most examined demographic division was between college graduates and non-college graduates (the “working class” is generally defined as non-college educated because their jobs do not require a college degree).

Clinton won the former 57% to 36%, while Trump won the latter 50% to 43%. College grads made up 37% of the electorate, while non-college grads accounted for 63%.

Of the roughly 136.7 million total votes, non-college grads totaled approximately 86,121,000. This means that, at 50%, nearly 43,060,500 of Trump’s 62,984,824 total votes came from that group. Clinton, who received 65,853,516 votes (but lost the electoral college), received around 37,032,030 non-college graduate votes. Trump, therefore, won the group by six million.

Trump’s clear margin of victory among non-college grads has been one of the key stats underpinning the “Trump appeals to the white working class” argument. And, in fact, when looking at just white non-college graduates, the difference is even clearer: Trump won that group (60,148,000 total votes) 64% to 28% (or 38,494,720 to 16,841,440).

There is no question Trump appealed to the white working class, but what explains Trump’s lack of crossover with nonwhite non-college grads?

Income or race?

Clinton won 77% of nonwhite non-college grads, compared to only 18% for Trump. Nonwhite non-college grads cast 25,973,000 votes, with Clinton winning 19,999,210 and Trump winning 4,675,140. Trump actually had a better showing with nonwhite college grads, earning 26% to Clinton’s 68%.

Trump won white non-college grads by nearly 22 million, whereas Clinton won the much smaller group of nonwhite non-college grads by more than 15 million. If economic anxiety was the key factor, these two opposing statistics would be hard to explain. After all, any purely economic policies that benefited white non-college grads would benefit nonwhite non-college grads.

Nonwhite non-college grads made up 30% of Clinton’s total base, compared to 34% of white college grads and 26% white non-college grads. When split by race, then, Clinton’s message to the working class appears to have been more broadly popular than Trump’s. Put another way, race was a more predictive factor in a person’s vote than their educational attainment.

Underpinning this point further is how Trump and Clinton did with different income groups. In 2016, Clinton won voters earning under US$30,000 a year, 53% to 41%, and voters earning US$30,000 to US$49,999, 51% to 42%. Trump won in all other income groups. That included those with an annual income of US$250,000 or more, which Trump won 48% to 46%.

The 2020 election demographics

The current post-2020 election analysis is based on initial data points, including exit polling. Like 2016, a fuller picture of the 2020 electorate probably won’t be available for a year or more. Still, analysis of what is known so far can be informative (with the caveat that more detailed reporting down the line could change our current understanding).

With approximately 158.4 million votes, the 2020 election had the largest vote total of any election in the history of the United States. With 51.3% of the vote, Biden received 81,281,502 votes to Trump’s 74,222,593 (46.9%).

Throughout his presidency, Trump often dubiously boasted of presiding over “the greatest economy in US history.” The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn essentially neutralized that talking point, but even before the pandemic, Trump’s economic policies, which included a trade war with China and tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, rarely benefited the working class.

Still, according to the preliminary numbers, Trump doesn’t appear to have lost much ground with his working-class voters. He received 63% of the votes from white non-college grads and even gained with nonwhite non-college educated voters, achieving 25% on the back of increased Hispanic support, particularly in Florida and Texas.

At the same time, though, Biden improved over Clinton among white non-college grads, earning 36%. In general, Biden improved across almost every demographic, gaining among white men and white women and even gaining with older voters. And though Biden lost a little ground with Hispanic voters, Black voters were instrumental to his victory in Georgia and other states.

Biden also improved on Clinton’s margin for all voters making less than US$100,000 a year, while Trump held a resounding lead of 54% to 42% with voters whose annual income was US$100,000 or higher.

The future of American politics

What motivates a broad demographic of voters to support a candidate is always a mixture of multiple variables. There is undeniable evidence that “economic anxiety,” rooted in the loss of America’s working-class (or blue collar) jobs and growing wealth divide, is a powerful motivator. Neither party can afford to ignore those concerns.

Yet, any analysis that ignores racial division and animosity within the electorate – and Trump’s propensity for utilizing racist language – is fatally incomplete. As the white working class declines and the population of nonwhite citizens in the US grows, the political calculus that worked for Trump in 2016 will surely have its limitations going forward.

If Democrats have not done enough to sufficiently appeal to white working-class voters, it’s just as true that Republicans have failed to win over nonwhite working-class voters. Unless the GOP finds a way to make greater inroads with the nonwhite electorate, especially among Black voters, it will struggle in national elections.

As sports journalist Jemele Hill pointedly put it, “Black people have been under the boot of racism, white supremacy, economic anxiety, inequality and so much else. Despite it all, we somehow didn’t vote for a racist and didn’t storm not nary a U.S. capitol. But sure, let’s keep centering everything around aggrieved white people.”

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