Can Democrats Raid Some of Trump’s White Working-Class Supporters?

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Donald Trump may have exposed a rift between white working class voters and the GOP that Democrats can exploit.Photo: Meg Roussos/© 2015 Bloomberg Finance LP

It’s taken a while, but it’s finally sinking in across much of the commentariat that Donald Trump’s strongest core of support is among non-college-educated white voters — a.k.a. the white working class. This also happens to be a large and steadily increasing element of the Republican Party’s voter base (Republicans won well over 60 percent of this demographic in 2012 and 2014).

So two key questions arise: Can either of the Democratic presidential candidates compete with Trump for white working-class votes? And if he fails to win the GOP nomination, could that free up these voters to be “raided” by the Democratic nominee?

Andrew Levison, an established scholar of the white working class and its political behavior, did something very interesting to answer the first question and give some guidance on the second. As he reports in a New York Times op-ed column Tuesday, he looked at open primaries this year where Democrats and Republicans could compete for white working-class votes. 

The New Hampshire primary provided some encouragement for Democrats. Among white voters without a college degree, Mr. Sanders won more votes than Mr. Trump. According to data I calculated from the CNN exit polls, Mr. Sanders received 29 percent of their ballots, ahead of 24 percent for Mr. Trump. In another contest, the Massachusetts primary on Super Tuesday, Mr. Sanders won 36 percent of that group’s votes, in contrast to 27 percent for Mr. Trump. Not far behind, Mrs. Clinton received 24 percent of that vote. The combined Democratic vote in Massachusetts was a robust 60 percent.

Unsurprisingly, the picture was less positive for Democrats in southern primaries. But non-voting data indicates that crucial Rust Belt states could fall somewhere in between.

The most in-depth recent research on the political attitudes of these Americans was conducted in December and January by Working America, a progressive grassroots organization. They went door-to-door to talk to over 1,698 residents of white working-class neighborhoods around Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

They confirmed that Mr. Trump has two distinct groups of supporters. The first are the ideologically driven conservative voters who passionately support his belligerent ethnocentrism.

The second group is composed of “fed up” voters who are not primarily ideological in their political perspective and whose vote would be largely a protest against business as usual rather than an affirmation of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric. For many of these voters, the financial crisis and the bailouts for investment banks severely strained their trust in the federal government.

So “fed up” white working-class voters should, in theory anyway, be open to a congenial Democratic message. And beyond that, if Trump is defeated in Cleveland under circumstances that suggest a plutocratic coup, both kinds of Trump voters could be up for grabs. In effect, Trump has exposed a long-standing but buried conflict between white working-class voters and a GOP elite economic agenda these voters never completely bought into. 

But even if Trump serves up some winnable voters by failing to win the GOP nomination, Levison notes, relying on Stan Greenberg’s extensive research on the subject, Democrats have to overcome white working-class hostility to government as corrupt and incompetent. 

The really good news for Democrats is that they don’t have to make massive inroads into the Trump vote to improve on their party’s terrible recent performance among white working-class voters. And lest we forget, many of these voters will be as alienated by Trump’s appeals to racist and xenophobic sentiments as any Ph.D.