Sabato's Crystal Ball

Explaining Support for Trump in the White Working Class: Race vs. Economics

Alan I. Abramowitz, Senior Columnist, Sabato's Crystal Ball April 12th, 2018

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KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— Data from the Pew Research Center show that six months into Donald Trump’s presidency, the gap between whites with and without college degrees in opinions of the president was enormous. Non-college whites were far more likely to approve of Trump’s performance than white college graduates.

— This gap appears to have little or nothing to do with differences between the economic circumstances of these two groups. While whites without college degrees did experience far more economic distress than those with college degrees, economic distress itself appeared to have little relationship with opinions of Trump.

— The main explanation for the class divide in opinions of Trump among whites appeared to be differing views on race relations. White college graduates were much more likely than whites without college degrees to hold liberal views on the significance of racial discrimination, and opinions on the significance of racial discrimination were strongly related to opinions of Trump’s performance. Racial attitudes, not economics, appears to be the main factor producing strong support for Trump among members of the white working class.

Trump and the white working class

It has been almost 18 months since the 2018 presidential election, but pundits and scholars continue to debate how President Donald Trump pulled off one of the most shocking upsets in recent political history. There is general agreement on one point — Trump’s strong appeal to white-working class voters was crucial to his success, especially in swing states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. However, there continues to be strong disagreement about why the class divide among whites was even larger in 2016 than in other recent elections.

Analysts have suggested two major explanations for Trump’s strong appeal to the white working class: economic distress and racial/ethnic resentment. According to the economic distress theory, Trump’s appeal was based mainly on his promises to address problems such as stagnant wages, foreign competition, and the loss of manufacturing jobs. In contrast, according to the racial/ethnic resentment theory, Trump’s appeal to the white working class was based primarily on his use of explicit messages invoking resentment and fear of racial minorities and immigrants.

In this article, I examine support for Donald Trump among the white working class some six months into his presidency. Using data from a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center during June and July of 2017, I show that after six months in office, Trump continued to receive strong support among members of the white working class. In addition, the data indicate that racial/ethnic resentment was much more important than economic distress in explaining support for Trump.

Table 1: The class divide in white opinions of Trump

Source: 2017 Pew Typology Survey

Table 1 compares approval of Trump’s performance as president among white citizens with and without college degrees. The results show that among the nearly two-thirds of whites who were not college graduates — the group we are referring to as the white working class — Trump’s approval rating was some 23 percentage points higher than among the approximately one-third of whites who were college graduates. These results indicate that the sharp class divide in support for Trump among white voters that was evident on Election Day was just as strong six months into his presidency.

Table 2: Economic situation of whites by education

Source: 2017 Pew Typology Survey

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump frequently commented on economic problems that disproportionately affected working-class Americans, including stagnant wages and the loss of jobs in manufacturing and mining, blaming these problems on trade agreements such as NAFTA and competition from immigrants. The data in Table 2 from the 2017 Pew survey show that six months into Trump’s presidency, whites without college degrees continued to experience considerably greater economic distress than whites with college degrees. Their incomes were substantially lower, and they were much less likely to believe that they could live off their savings for any extended period.

Table 3. Opinion on racial discrimination among whites by education

Source: 2017 Pew Typology Survey

The data from the 2017 Pew survey show that in addition to greater economic distress, whites without college degrees also held far more conservative attitudes on racial issues than white college graduates. This can be seen very clearly in Table 3. While the large majority of white college graduates viewed racial discrimination as the main obstacle to black advancement in American society, more than two-thirds of whites without college degrees felt that blacks were “mostly responsible for their own condition.” However, after controlling for education, whites’ views on racial discrimination were unrelated to their economic situation. Lower-income whites were no more likely to blame blacks for their inability to get ahead.

Figure 1. Approval of Trump by family income among college and non-college whites

Source: 2017 Pew Typology Survey

The data from the 2017 Pew survey also demonstrate that support for Trump was unrelated to economic distress among either college-educated or non-college whites. This can be seen in Figure 1. In fact, among non-college whites, approval of Trump’s job performance was greatest among those in the highest income category and lowest among those in the lowest income category. Moreover, controlling for family income did not reduce the gap in Trump approval between whites with and without college degrees. At every income level, those without college degrees were much more likely to approve of Trump’s performance than those with college degrees.

Figure 2. Approval of Trump by racial conservatism among college and non-college whites

Source: 2017 Pew Typology Survey

In sharp contrast with the findings in Figure 1, the data in Figure 2 show that racial conservatism — that is, believing that blacks not getting ahead have no one to blame but themselves — was strongly related to support for Trump among both college and non-college whites. Furthermore, controlling for racial outlook largely eliminates the gap in Trump approval between college and non-college whites. Among both racial liberals and racial conservatives, those without college degrees were only slightly more likely to approve of Trump’s job performance than those with college degrees.

Conclusions

Data from a Pew Research Center survey conducted during June and July of 2017 show that six months into Donald Trump’s presidency, the gap between whites with and without college degrees in opinions of the president was enormous. Non-college whites were far more likely to approve of Trump’s performance than white college graduates.

However, this gap appears to have little or nothing to do with differences between the economic circumstances of these two groups. While whites without college degrees did experience far more economic distress than those with college degrees, economic distress itself appeared to have little relationship with opinions of Trump. Instead, the main explanation for the class divide in opinions of Trump among whites appeared to be differing views on race relations. White college graduates were much more likely than whites without college degrees to hold liberal views on the significance of racial discrimination in American society and opinions on the significance of racial discrimination were strongly related to opinions of Trump’s performance. Racial attitudes, not economics, appears to be the main factor producing strong support for Trump among members of the white working class.

Alan I. Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Chair in Political Science at Emory University and a senior columnist with Sabato’s Crystal Ball. His new book, The Great Alignment: Race, Party Transformation, and the Rise of Donald Trump, is scheduled for release this June by Yale University Press.