Middle-Income Suburbanites Decided the Election — Again

The white working class gets all the attention, but middle-income Americans quietly decided the election.

A Donald Trump yard sign in Taylorville, Illinois, June 18
A Donald Trump yard sign in Taylorville, Illinois, June 18 (Jason Matthews)

On election night, when it was starting to become clear Donald Trump would win, I wrote it had been a mistake to think Hillary Clinton could make up for losing white working-class voters in the “Rust Belt” by drawing more minority and young voters to the polls, particularly in the “Sun Belt” states.

Clinton didn’t win Florida. She didn’t win North Carolina. She didn’t make Arizona and Texas more competitive for Democrats. And she was so unpopular with white voters, especially those without a college degree, that one-time Democratic strongholds in the Northeast — Michigan and Pennsylvania — changed sides.

Looking more closely at what happened on Tuesday, though, I’m not sure this is what doomed her.

Not enough college graduates

Exit polls (which weren’t terribly accurate, so this may be off by a few points) showed Clinton and Trump essentially tied among white college graduates.

Mitt Romney won that demographic by 14 points four years ago. Barack Obama only prevailed because he held on to the white working class in states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania and because black turnout was higher, including in critical swing states like Florida and North Carolina.

Clinton was widely predicted to fare better with college-educated whites and a 14-point shift from one party to the other is nothing to sneer at.

But it wasn’t enough.

Swing vote

To me, this validates the argument I starting making here more than a year ago, which is that it’s not the white working class but instead the better-educated, better-off, urban and suburban middle class — majority white, but not entirely — in states like Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia that is the swing vote in presidential elections.

It historically has been.

In 1980, the white working class made up 65 percent of the electorate. By 2008, its share had fallen to 39 percent. The share of voters with college, but not postgraduate, degrees, by contrast, has climbed up and — crucially — they are about 10 percent more likely to turn out that working-class voters.

Traditionally Republican, middle-income and suburban voters have grown detached in recent years from the right’s social backwardness on issues like marriage equality and women’s rights.

In the last few months, many observers — including me — were expecting that Trump’s repugnant behavior would accelerate these trends and hand the election to Clinton.

Why didn’t this happen?

Hurting

One reason may be that the middle class has been hurting more than we thought.

As I reported here in May, middle incomes have had a rotten deal and major changes in the economy, from automatization to outsourcing to the gig economy, have now starting affecting college-educated professionals as well. Unemployment may be down, but job insecurity remains high.

If anybody was talking about this, it was Clinton. In our endorsement of her, the Atlantic Sentinel argued that Clinton’s policies, including childcare, paid family leave and tax breaks for middle incomes, would, if you added them all up, make life a little easier at every turn for those tens of millions of Americans who identify as middle class.

But it seems the specifics were lost in the noise of an unusually loud and bitter election campaign.

Maybe it was because Clinton couldn’t sell her plans as part of some big, overarching vision.

Maybe it is because these voters are more nostalgic than forward-looking after all.

Maybe white resentment, which played a role in the white underclass’ support for Trump, is more widespread than we thought.

It will probably take a while before we really understand what happened.

Backlash

For now, my money is on Jonathan Haidt’s thesis, who argued, before the election, in The American Interest that authoritarians and nativists can only succeed when they are joined by what he called “status-quo conservatives”: people who are temperamentally wary of big promises and big change.

Haidt warned that status-quo conservatives could be drawn into an alliance with authoritarians if they believe that progressives have subverted the country’s traditions and identity so badly that dramatic political action is only way they can stand athwart history anymore yelling “Stop!”

If Trump is a reaction to changing gender norms, to a more fluid definition of what it means to be “American” and to evolving race relations, then those making and supporting those changes must have more patience with those who are struggling to keep up.

You don’t convince people to be more relaxed about female power or gay rights by ridiculing old-fashioned gender roles or suing bakers who refuse to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple.

You don’t defeat jingoists by mocking people’s patriotism and you don’t open their eyes to racial injustice by shaming people’s whiteness.

All that will get you is a backlash.

The center can only hold if it’s big enough

I still think the big story in American politics is the flight of white, mostly blue-collar, mostly rural voters to the Republican Party and the transformation of the Democratic Party into a coalition of upscale whites and ethnic and sexual minority voters.

The tension between these groups — the former valuing homogeneity, the latter diversity; the former looking inward, the latter looking out to the world — could result in the two parties at least partially realigning.

Long term, demographics and social norms favor Democrats.

But change happens slowly and the center can only hold if it’s big enough. Democrats took the quiet voters of the suburbs for granted and paid the price.