Issue 5: Election Post-Mortem, Part 1
It might seem oddly self-deprecating to begin what is essentially a post-mortem of this election with a critique of post-mortems as a practice, but hear me out. All of you are looking for answers. I am too. I admit I decided to write a detailed analysis of what post-election data shows us in the attempts of finding an overarching theme that I could draw on. I was convinced that the data would bear out my own conclusions, despite the fact that I derided others for twisting the facts to fit their own pet ideas about election theory. I thought I was being more open-minded, because I had already read a lot. But the more I read, the more confused I became. Several things emerged to me as being very important, but none in a way that was certain; none in a way that was completely satisfying. In the GOP’s 2012 post-election analysis, which they called a “party autopsy” in their dismay at a second straight loss to Obama, they called for a more open, more diverse Republican party. Party leaders really did their homework on this report, and their conclusions are pretty astounding given where we are today:
“The report — the product of 2,600 interviews with voters, experts, party officials and business leaders, as well as a poll of Hispanic Republicans and an online survey of 36,000 stakeholders — was remarkable for its blunt criticism of Republican politics. The party, the report’s five authors argued, had become the realm of ‘stuffy old men’ and spent too much time ‘talking to itself’ rather than engaging new voters. Backing immigration reform, the authors concluded, would be necessary to shed that image. ‘If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only,’ the authors wrote.”
In 2012 we lived in a world in which top Republican analysts said the Republican party needed to embrace immigration reform. In 2016 we elected a Republican who called Mexicans rapists in his very first campaign speech.
Is post-election analysis useless? No. Is it right very often? Also no. The electorate changes too quickly, for one. For another, despite paying lip service to the idea, it is my opinion that many analyzers are incapable of incorporating the fact that voters vote based on multiple factors into their discussions. It is meaningless to talk about economic anxiety without talking about how that very anxiety is often racially motivated and tied to partisanship; it is meaningless to tell you that media coverage of Clinton’s email scandal was a big deal without talking about how media coverage of Trump’s immigration plan was a big deal too; and it is meaningless to urge Democrats to court more white working class voters without talking about courting the people of color who stayed home this year. In an election that was this close, with 80,000 people in three states deciding the electoral college victory for Donald, ANYTHING could have changed the outcome in our favor. And the many things that could have made that change are interconnected; they play on each other.
Originally I was going to write this entire multipart analysis in advance, so that my conclusions would be laid out for you from the beginning. But what I have researched defied me that simplicity. Now I’m flying blind. I’m going to present what I think is relevant information about the election, one thing at a time, and see if it takes me somewhere. If not, I think we’ll all still have learned something along the way.
Part 1: The White Working Class and the Economy
There’s been a lot of discussion about how Democrats failed working class whites, and how it cost us the election. Just in the last week, dueling think pieces on whether or not Hillary Clinton ignored the white working class have been written. The first, arguing she didn’t ignore them, is from The Atlantic; the second, refuting the Atlantic piece, is from New York Magazine. I was predisposed to agree with the Atlantic piece, but even I found the rebuttal persuasive. It’s like argument whiplash: EVERYONE has good points to make. But I still think the idea that Democrats lost this election because of the white working class is overblown. I also think that even if we did, their partisan and bigoted reasons for voting against us are underblown. AND, on top of all of that, I think we should still try to help them. I still think Hillary Clinton made strategic errors (as does literally every candidate). All of these ideas can coexist in your mind. But let’s start with the white working class, who they are, why they did or didn’t vote, and what that means for Democrats.
Defining Our Terms
What is the white working class anyway? Is it rural whites? Poor whites? Whites in blue collar jobs? Some combination of those? Actually, in exit polls, and therefore in most political discussions, the white working class refers to whites without a college degree. For example, take a look at this NBC headline:
And then look further down into the body of the article:
They are using “working class whites” and “whites who do not have a college degree” interchangeably. For another example, see the Washington Post:
“The white working class has received enormous attention since Election Day thanks to its critical role in electing Donald Trump the next president. Exit polls show he won this group — defined as white adults over 25 without a four-year degree — by an overwhelming margin of 39 percentage points.”(emphasis mine)
Not all academic papers define the working class in this way, but in politics they generally do. When I attended a CNN panel this week, I asked whether their network had a working definition of the white working class that they regularly used, and the only factor they singled out specifically was education.
So based on this definition, there are some things we need to clear up. This particular group, white adults without a college degree, does not necessarily look like you think it does. This group lives, in the vast majority, in urban areas; not rural:
Additionally, most of this group does NOT work in manufacturing or other blue collar jobs:
So when you hear a news anchor or commentator referring to “the white working class” and “manufacturers in Appalachia” or some similar moniker in the same breath: be suspicious of the accuracy of that statement. If they are using exit polls, that second group is NOT the one they’re talking about, or at least the second group is only a small subgroup of the first. (Now among these subgroups, i.e. whites without a college degree who live in rural areas and whites without college degrees who work in blue collar jobs, Trump likely still won. Those are pretty Republican groups. But try to be clear in who you’re talking about.)
It wasn’t about income or the economy
There’s been a lot of concern for poor whites this year, and how they’ve been neglected by the Democrats. But Republicans did not win among the very poor. Hillary Clinton won among the lowest income brackets nationwide:
This is broadly true even in rust belt and swing states. It’s true in Iowa for both of the two lowest brackets above; true in Michigan for under $30k; true in Wisconsin for under $30k and they tied at $30-$49,999; true in Ohio for under $30k; and true in Pennsylvania for both. Evidence from the primaries suggests the same, with an analysis from FiveThirtyEight showing that Trump’s supporters had a median income of $72,000 a year, well above the national median of $56,000 a year. All the other Republican candidates were even higher, it’s true, but both Clinton and Sanders supporters had median income levels in the low $60s, much closer to the national average. Poorer people as a group, when they vote at all, tend to vote Democrat. Surprised? Remember that most poor people, especially the poorest of the poor, are not white.
There is little evidence that Trump supporters voted for him based on economic concerns, or at least direct economic concerns. Take a look at these word clouds from Gallup of what voters recalled hearing in the days just before they were surveyed on each candidate:
If you squint you can see “economic” somewhere in the Trump cloud. Now, you don’t see economy words in the Clinton cloud either, which I absolutely think is a problem: a failure both of the media coverage, and of the messaging. But it’s not like people were getting that message from Trump. One of the largest words in Trump’s cloud is, of course, immigration. This squares with the exit poll data, in which Clinton won voters who said the economy was the most important issue facing our country by 11 percentage points. Trump won voters who said immigration and terrorism were the most important issues.
For space reasons I’m not going to put pictures of all of them, but the numbers are the SAME (i.e. Clinton won voters who said economy was most important and Trump won voters who said Immigration and Terrorism were most important) in all of the so-called “Rust Belt 5” states of Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, except for Iowa on which they tied on the economy question. That’s right, not one of those groups of voters said the economy was the most important factor to them and then voted majority for Trump. Same is true in Florida, and North Carolina. Literally every state that mattered to the Democrats, voters consistently said if they cared about the economy, they voted for Clinton; if they cared about immigration or terrorism, they voted for Trump.
There was no white working class revolution
The idea of a white working class revolution, with a huge swing toward Trump among whites without college degrees, is somewhat undermined by the fact that the white working class didn’t turnout in greater numbers this year. Whites without a college degree were 34% of exit poll respondents in 2016 and 39% in 2008. If there was a white working class revolt, why didn’t more of them show up for it? Now, exit polls are pretty terrible and constantly oversample people who are college educated compared to the population, but they likely do so with relative consistency. I would’ve expected at least a slight bump in the percentage of respondents who were white with no college degree if they showed up in droves this election.
Actually, the people depicted as most likely to vote for Trump (i.e. poor non-educated whites in rural areas) are actually the least likely to vote period. There are nearly twice as many white adults without a college degree in the US as there are whites with a bachelor’s degree or higher. But in exit polls, they are about the same percentage of people surveyed:
Even accounting for the fact the over sampling of educated people I mentioned above, that is a HUGE disparity from the general population.
Why are those without college degree so underrepresented? One reason is because the poor and those with less education don’t vote as much as other groups. According to Census Bureau voter data, in the 2014 midterm elections, 65.9% of voters with a bachelor’s degree or higher reported voting, while only 45.6% of those with less than a bachelor’s degree reported the same. That’s a 20 point difference. Similarly, among all income groups making $50,000 a year or more, 58.1% reportedly voted, while in groups making less than $50,000, only 40.1% reported the same. This data holds up for the 2008, 2010, and 2012 elections as well, and is true at every single income bracket going from bottom to top; put another way, every step up to a higher income bracket produced higher voter turnout in all three of those years except for a single bracket in one year where it was slightly lower. Voter turnout increases by an average of 3.7% per income increase of $5,000 per year. I’ve read reporters who specialize in Appalachia, a region brought up a lot in this election, who say that the people they talk to by and large don’t vote at all.
Additionally, Republican gains among white voters and poor voters in the states that cost us this election (like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania) were small scale compared to Democrats’ LOSSES in this category. Wait, you’re saying, aren’t Republican gains and Democratic losses in a particular group the same people? Nope, not this year. This year, the number of white voters gained by Republicans in the Rust Belt 5 (again Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio) was 450,000. Sounds huge, until you learn that Democrats lost 950,000 votes among white voters in those states. Even if all 450,000 of those gained by Republicans were Democratic flips as opposed to people who didn’t vote last time (which is HIGHLY unlikely), we still lost half a million white voters. They either voted third party or stayed home. Furthermore, in the states where exit poll numbers were available, Democrats lost over 400,000 votes among black, indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC voters), while Republicans gained only 100,000 or so votes in those categories. It’s even more startling in chart form:
Those 400,000 votes among BIPOC voters would have easily won us this election. So why are we only talking about reaching out more to white voters?
Among low income voters, across all races, the shift was even worse.
Hillary Clinton did indeed win lower income brackets, as I said above, but not by nearly as much as past Democrats; not by enough. Democrats did not lose the Rust Belt 5 because of the white working class: we lost it because our base stayed home. Low income voters and people of color didn’t turn out or voted third party. According to Slate:
“Compared with 2012, three times as many voters in the Rust Belt who made under $100,000 voted for third parties. Twice as many voted for alternative or write-in candidates. Similarly, compared with 2012, some 500,000 more voters chose to sit out this presidential election. If there was a Rust Belt revolt this year, it was the voters’ flight from both parties.”
(As a side note, this should also dispel the overblown anxiety about Obama-to-Trump flip voters. Those people certainly exist, and they will forever baffle me, but there’s no real evidence that Democratic voters from 2012 changed to Republican. Again, they stayed home or voted third party by and large. And even a substantial portion of the voters Republicans gained were likely new voters; there’s no evidence they were necessaily Obama voters.)
There is no doubt that the white working class played a significant role in electing Trump. Education was the most statistically significant factor in this election in terms of who voted for him, AND it was more significant by far than in any election in recent history. Being white and not having a college degree were very, very strong predictors that someone would vote for Trump. But the question is, how much does that matter? Put another way: Is that why we lost?
Surprisingly, not really! Could we have won if we’d gotten more white working class support? Yes. We could also have won if Hillary Clinton had a Y chromosome….it just wasn’t going to happen. In states where it mattered most, we had other problems. There is no reason to suggest that Democrats need to, as a broad strategy, change our party platform drastically to go after the white working class vote. That vote was never ours to begin with. Trump may have won that vote by “an overwhelming margin of 39 percentage points”, but Romney won it by 25 points in 2012, so we weren’t exactly competitive there to begin with.
Should you, as a liberal, or should Democrats as a party, care about and talk to the extremely poor among white folks, whose towns really are dying and whose lives really are in jeopardy? (You guys should seriously read those headlines.) Yes, absolutely. But you should do it because it’s the right thing to do. Because as Democrats we care about the poor. This isn’t even a self-righteousness thing, like “do it for the right reasons not the wrong ones”; there IS no political reason to do it. It’s not just wrong in motivation to talk to working class whites to save the Democratic party, it’s wrong in execution as well. And if we’re going to clean up our economic messaging, we should make sure that economic messaging targets poor people of color just as much if not more so than working class whites, because poor people of color tend to be even worse off than their white counterparts and they’re the ones who are going to vote Democrat; so that’s correct in both motivation AND execution. It’s true that we don’t need to win the entire white working class to win, we only need a few percentage points in key areas, but that is ALSO true of other groups. Don’t get white people tunnel vision.
In Part 2, I’m going to talk extensively about racism and sexism and how they influenced this election, as well as how to talk about them both with adversaries and with friends. I purposely left racial and gender-related considerations almost wholly out of Part 1; I urge you NOT to do similarly when discussing this election, especially with your friends of color and your female friends, which will be a large part of my point in Part 2. There will be more charts! Stay tuned.
Good Night and Good Luck
-The CIA has officially determined that Russian hackers were involved in the theft and dissemination of DNC emails. There is evidence that the RNC was hacked as well, but that those emails were not released. Obama has ordered an investigation. The very latest is that US Intelligence believes Putin himself was personally involved. There are several electors calling for an intelligence briefing on this issue.
-Ohio Governor John Kasich vetoed Ohio’s horrible 6 week abortion ban only to pass a 20 week ban into law in the state
-Trump and his team have been reported as attempting to massively block protesters from the National Mall before, during, and after inauguration
-Teen Vogue is awesome. You heard me.
-The New York Times has managed to get hold of a few pages of Donald’s tax returns from the 1995
-Slate created a tool for blocking fake news on Facebook that I think is great. It gives you options to see the proof and share it with the person who posted the fake story.
-Donald has named several new horrifying cabinet picks, including Rick Perry as Energy Secretary.
-Speaking of the Department of Energy, Donald’s team asked them for a list of scientists working on climate change in their department, and Energy refused to give it to them #resist!
And that’s all for this week Runners! As usual, check out my Pinterest boardfor if you want to find most of the political articles and things I’ve linked to in the past month, and leave anonymous feedback telling me how these letters are making the sun shine brighter on my Google feedback form. You can also use that form to submit topics. Subscribe to The ForeRunner at http://tinyletter.com/theforerunner or read my back issues, all of which are public, at http://tinyletter.com/theforerunner/archives. I also have a Medium page, which is the blog version of these letters, and those are more easily searchable than the archives. Follow me on Twitter @speaknojessica. Every time you get someone to subscribe, an ex-Dancing with the Stars participant becomes relevant again.
This week, Maple is a terrifying nightmare monster:
Event link round up(local to DC unless otherwise noted)*:
December 15: The Bill of Rights in the 21st Century hosted by the National Archives
December 15 (Arlington, VA): Arlington Dems Open House hosted by the Arlington County Democratic Committee
December 15: Lobby Training for Local and Federal Activism hosted by Citizens Climate Lobby DC (facebook link)
December 16: Standing for Aleppo gathering at the White House (facebook link)
December 17: Conversations for Action Part 1 hosted by Good Guys DC (only available if you took their core training, which was very good; don’t worry, they are hosting another one in January)
December 17: Turnout March on DC hosted by NOQ Creative (facebook link)
December 20: Second Council vote on Paid Family Leave for DC (I will be there!)
*These events are vetted in a sense by me. I will try to tell you if they’re full, and I only post them if I think they’re legitimate or worth going to.