Is race or class the more politically significant division in the United States? Donald Trump’s rise has gotten the nation talking again about both in American politics. Some observers have examined Trump’s support among white working class voters, focusing on how economic conditions can explain his candidacy. Others have pointed to his followers’ enthusiasm for his comments about race, even suggesting that racial attitudes make up the “central dividing line” in American politics.
Here’s what fewer people haver tried to untangle: How do race and class intersect to shape Americans’ political views? Are political differences between whites and ethnic or racial minorities consistent at every income level, or do political attitudes change with income – and if so, how is that influenced by race?
Our new analysis reveals that race and class intersect in interesting ways in structuring political attitudes. On all major political issues, the gap between African-Americans and whites is generally wide and remains so even at the highest levels of income. On the measures we examined, both low-income and affluent African-Americans are significantly more liberal than their white counterparts.
That changes when we look at Latinos. At lower income levels, Latinos are to the left of whites, and are both more liberal and more likely to be Democrats. But that changes with affluence: wealthier Latinos are politically similar to wealthier whites. In other words, race and class aren’t entirely separate; they interact in shaping attitudes.
Here’s how we did our research
We drew these conclusions by examining responses to the 2012 and 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) surveys, which include samples that allow us to examine white, black and Latino respondents at various levels of income. In all, our data set has 13,724 black respondents and 11,258 Latino respondents, including individuals at the highest income levels. These large samples allow us to investigate the intersection of race and class in a way that little previous research has been able to do.
Attitudes toward Obamacare. To gauge policy attitudes, we first examined respondents’ support for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), with black and white respondents presented in the left-hand panel of the graph below. The large divide in support is not surprising.
As the chart shows, class has little to do with the divisions between whites and African Americans. Wealthy African American respondents support the ACA just as firmly as African Americans in the lowest income bracket, with about 75 percent in support. Similarly, whites of all income levels are equally divided about “Obamacare,” with around half at every income level saying they support the ACA.
That’s different for Latinos. In the right-hand graph below, you can see that the Latino-white gap gets smaller and almost completely closes at higher income levels. While lower- and middle-income Latinos support the ACA more than do whites at those income levels, the wealthiest Latinos are just as likely to oppose the ACA as the wealthiest whites.
Attitudes toward the federal budget. Respondents were asked how they would reduce the deficit and given the options of a) cutting defense spending, b) cutting domestic spending, or c) increasing taxes. The graph below shows the percent who say they would cut domestic spending. (There’s no need to graph them all; the patterns were about the same for cutting defense spending or raising taxes).
Low-income voters — whether white, black or Latino — all overwhelmingly reject budget cuts to domestic social programs. But attitudes diverge as income increases. Among households with an income of about $100,000/year and above, about half of whites say they would cut domestic spending — while upper-income African Americans actually reject domestic spending cuts more emphatically.
Once again, Latinos’ attitudes are different. Lower-income Latinos reject domestic spending cuts even more strongly than lower-income whites. But that changes for those who have about $125,000 in household income. After that, about an equal percentage of whites and Latinos — roughly half — start to say they would cut domestic programs.
Democrat or Republican? In the graph below, we can see that at every income level, roughly the same percentage of whites identify with the Democratic Party. What you can’t see is that that’s different for Republicans: the higher the income, the more whites switch from identifying as independent to Republican.
Nor is there very much difference by income level among African Americans. About 80 percent of working-class African Americans identify as Democrats, falling to about 70 percent among the wealthiest. But even the wealthiest African Americans are about 20 percentage points more likely to be Democrats than the wealthiest whites.
Once again, there’s a bigger difference between lower-income and higher-income Latinos — and less difference from whites among the wealthy. Nearly 60 percent of working-class Latinos are Democrats, compared with about half of those earning $250,000 a year. The white-Latino gap goes from 20 percentage points at the lowest income level to essentially zero at the highest.
In other words, African Americans and whites are widely divided, ideologically and in political party, at every level of prosperity.
That’s not so among Latinos, the wealthier of whom are more conservative and more Republican than those at lower incomes. High-income Latinos have views similar to high-income whites, and could therefore be valuable Republican constituency.
Whether that opportunity will exist after a Republican presidential nominee who is openly hostile toward Latinos is another question altogether.
Sean McElwee is a policy analyst at Demos. Find him on Twitter @SeanMcElwee.
Jesse Rhodes is associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Find him on Twitter @JesseRhodesPS.
Brian Schaffner is professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Find him on Twitter @b_schaffner.