There’s a genre of news article that became infamous in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. In it, a reporter travels to the Midwest and proceeds to explain how the working-class residents of this exotic locale ended up voting for Donald Trump. As Trump’s presidency unfolded, the genre was refined somewhat, involving assessments of the extent to which those same voters were still supportive of the president. Usually, they were.
As often happens with things that become popularly unpopular, articles looking at the voting preferences of white Trump voters in the Midwest are now dismissed as necessarily useless and repetitive. I can say that because, in the wake of reporter Trip Gabriel’s article about voters near Youngstown, Ohio, that ran in the New York Times on Monday, the feedback was of a piece: Here we go again.
Well, yes. Here we go again, looking at the president’s support as his reelection looms in a region where he narrowly secured the votes necessary to win the Electoral College three years ago. There was often an element of defensiveness to the early 2017 treks to the Midwest and, at times, a sense of overcompensation in constantly checking in with those same voters in 2018. But now, it’s safe to say, the dynamic has changed. How voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin view the president is information that’s important for understanding the upcoming election.
The challenge now, though — as it was in 2016 — is understanding both how important the white working-class vote is in the context of the politics in those states and also understanding how much of that vote is affected by Trump himself.
We can answer that latter question pretty directly. Data released by Gallup in April shows that the politics of whites without college degrees — a reasonable proxy for “the working class” — have consistently grown more favorable to the GOP over the past 20 years.
In other words, it’s not really that Trump swayed white working-class voters to abandon the Democrats. If anything, he mobilized more of them to vote. At the same time, he benefited from a drop in turnout among voters who supported Barack Obama in 2012. As we’ve reported, an estimated 4.4 million Obama voters didn’t turn out in 2016, a third of them black.
As a general rule, there are far more white working-class residents in most counties than black residents. Nationally, there are about four times as many whites without college degrees as there are black Americans. In more than 2,400 of the more than 3,100 counties for which the Census Bureau has detailed data, the black population is less than 20 percent the size of the population of white working-class residents of a county.
While the correlation between the ratio of black to white working-class voters in a county isn’t that robust, counties in which there were more white working-class residents than black residents supported Trump by an average margin of 35 points. Counties where the number of black residents was larger backed Hillary Clinton by 28 points.
(Why isn’t it very robust? In part because there are a number of very white, very Democratic areas, like the Northeast.)
More interesting is a broader look at how the white and nonwhite populations compare. There are more than 400 counties where the nonwhite resident population is larger than the population of white working-class residents, compared with only 150 where there are more black residents.
Notice, though, the relative lightness of the region we’ve been discussing. In Ohio, the average county has about 18 times as many white working-class residents as black residents. It’s fair to note, as the Times’s Jamelle Bouie did, that framing a look at residents of Youngstown, Ohio, through the lens of the white working-class is inaccurate (the city is majority nonwhite). But it’s also the case that “Youngstown” has been a shorthand for “manufacturing workers in Northeast Ohio” since well before Bruce Springsteen’s song named after the city.
A look at that region of the state shows that most of the counties with larger cities are not heavily nonwhite.
Mahoning, Summit and Cuyahoga counties all voted for Clinton in 2016 anyway, on the strength of turnout in those cities.
In Mahoning County, though, the margin was only about three points, after Obama won it by 28 points in 2012.
We return, then, to the questions we had at the outset. How much of this shift was a function of Trump — either through boosting turnout or through convincing Obama voters to support his candidacy? How critical are those white working-class voters to Trump’s hopes of winning a second term?
You’re warned in advance: These questions will require more reporting.