Nicholas Carnes is a Duke professor who studies the political patterns of America’s working class. In the process of getting to know this demographic, he may have become a little protective of those who wait tables, work in mills, drive trucks and fix broken pipes.
Maybe that’s why his skepticism rose as the conventional thinking settled around the idea that disgruntled white, working-class voters were the ones responsible for putting Donald Trump in the White House.
“That seemed suspicious on its face because of what we know about who votes Republican,” Carnes said in an interview last week. “If that were true, that the would be an election like no other.” So the assistant professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and his research partner, Noam Lupu, an associate professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, dug into the numbers in the University of Michigan’s venerable report, the American National Election Studies, a federal survey that has been conducted for every election since the 1950s. The survey includes data on education levels and occupations.
What the two researchers found was that it wasn’t a new coalition of working-class people who put Trump in office. It was the usual Republican stalwarts, college-educated people who are in the upper half of the national income levels. Carnes and Lupu described their findings in a blog post that ran on The Washington Post website on June 5.
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They wrote: “Media coverage of the 2016 election often emphasized Donald Trump’s appeal to the working-class … There’s just one problem: this account is wrong. Trump voters were not mostly working-class people.”
The piece attracted more than 400,000 page views, and Carnes said he was engulfed in emails and Twitter comments.
The researchers’ finding was a rather startling second hit on the mainstream media and the political establishment. Not only were those groups wrong about the likely winner of the 2016 election (myself included), they were wrong about why they were wrong.
“Far from being a magnet for the less educated, Trump seemed to have about as many people without college degrees in his camp as we would expect any successful Republican candidate to have,” they wrote.
Indeed, the group Carnes defines as “white working class” – white people without a college degree whose income is below the national median – accounted for only 1 in 4 Trump votes. The other 75 percent came from people who had a household income above the national median or had college degrees or were not white.
That finding flips the thinking – and, depending on your political view, the blame – about who is responsible for installing Trump in the White House. Low-income whites in economically depressed parts of the country would seem to have had an excuse for making the radical choice of turning to an inexperienced and bombastic candidate with a history of business troubles. They needed big changes and they had little to lose. But the truth is that Trump was largely elected by people with college degrees with incomes above the national median. What was their excuse for putting their country into the hands of someone so ill-suited to be president?
Carnes says the simplest explanation is that they were Republicans. “I don’t think people switch sides. It’s like sports teams. You pick your team and you back it,” he said.
The election, often described as a revolution of the left-out and left-behind, was really nothing of the sort. It was merely a case of Trump motivating the traditional Republican base, and Hillary Clinton failing to motivate Democrats.
If the media and the political establishment read the 2016 election wrong, are the Democrats taking the wrong message from it? Does the party need to renew its appeal to working-class whites, or does it simply need a candidate with a clearer vision and less baggage than Clinton?
Carnes suspects the answer is the latter, but he doesn’t want the losing party to forgo introspection or the winning party to take the working class for granted.
Carnes said, “Soul-searching is always good. I favor anything that forces both parties to pay attention to lower-income people.”
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com