The White Working Class and the 2016 Election

The White Working Class and the 2016 Election

By Nicholas Carnes, Duke University and Noam Lupu, Vanderbilt University

Academics and political pundits alike attribute rising support for right-wing political options across advanced democracies to the working classes. In the United States, authors claim that the white working class offered unprecedented and crucial support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. But what is the evidence for this claim? We examine all of the available academic survey data gathered around the election, along with a number of surveys from prior elections. We test four common claims about the white working class in 2016: (1) that most Trump voters were white working-class Americans; (2) that most white working-class voters supported Trump; (3) that unusually large numbers of white working-class voters switched from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016; and (4) that white working-class voters were pivotal to Trump’s victory in several swing states. We find that three of the four are not supported by the available data, and the other lacks crucial context that casts doubt on the idea that Trump uniquely appealed to working-class Americans. White working-class Americans have been supporting Republican presidential candidates at higher rates in recent elections, but that process long predates 2016, and narratives that center on Trump’s alleged appeal obscure this important long-term trend.

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