Why is this year’s presidential contest different from all previous cycles’ presidential contests? There are lots of reasons, but at the root of them all is class-based voting.
To a limited degree, Americans’ votes have always been influenced by their income, wealth, and education levels—the most common metrics defining a voter’s class. They’ve also been influenced, however, by other aspects of Americans’ identities: race and religion foremost.
In recent decades, though, voting in the two parties’ presidential primaries has tended to follow more specific patterns. The Republican primary electorate (which has become almost entirely white) has generally been divided between more affluent voters favoring traditionally conservative economic policies (chiefly, low tax rates) and less concerned with religious and cultural matters, and evangelicals, more commonly less affluent, favoring anti-modernist cultural policies while relegating economic concerns to a secondary status, if not dismissing them altogether.
Democratic presidential contests in recent decades have frequently featured “establishment” candidates (Walter Mondale, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton in 2008), backed by the most powerful institutions in the Democrats’ orbits, and with strong support from working-class voters. These candidates have been pitted against “insurgents” (Eugene McCarthy, Gary Hart, Bill Bradley, Barack Obama) whose support among more affluent Democratic voters often had little to do with traditional Democratic bread-and-butter economics.
But not this year.
The break with the past is more clearly apparent in the GOP, where class identity has abruptly eclipsed religious and cultural identity as the primary determinant of how Republicans vote. Donald Trump’s success to date in Republican primaries is rooted in his ability to win nearly half of working-class Republicans’ votes, while the other candidates split the vote of upper-middle class Republicans. In South Carolina, a state where close to 70 percent of GOP primary voters told exit pollsters that they were evangelicals, Trump won the lion’s share of their votes over Ted Cruz, who had secured the support of the great majority of evangelical pastors and organizations. Despite Cruz’s support from the evangelical establishment, Trump ran up a huge margin among working-class evangelicals. Similarly, Marco Rubio, who emerged as the favorite of upper-middle class traditional Republicans, bested Cruz among college-educated evangelicals.
In a state where right-wing Christianity has long suffused Republican politics, it suddenly mattered less. To be sure, Cruz’s claim to evangelical support might possibly have been weakened by the fact that he is the least ethically constrained national political figure in many years. But the fact that none of the volubly Christian leaders or institutions who support him has voiced any qualms about his neo-McCarthyism suggests that his whopping moral deficiencies were not in themselves a deterrent to evangelical support.
In Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump had already become the favorite of non-religious, working-class Republicans. In South Carolina, he added the support of their evangelical counterparts—a pattern that, if it holds on the Super Tuesday primaries across the South, could be sufficient to dispatch Cruz from the race altogether. Trump’s appeal to the working class GOP comes in two parts. First, he takes what is already the party’s signature racism and xenophobia to extreme lengths with his anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim diatribes. Second, he contravenes conventional Republican economics with policies that have wide working-class appeal: Opposition to trade deals and to cutting Social Security and Medicare.
Trump’s program has no antecedent in recent American politics, but it should look familiar to anyone who’s followed recent European politics. It reeks of the same bigoted nationalism that characterizes the nativist right of Le Pen in France, of UKIP in the United Kingdom, and other right-wing parties across the continent. These parties tend to run strongest in areas that were formerly the working-class strongholds of social democratic parties (or, in France, the Communist Party).
Similarly, as the U.S. primaries move into the post-industrial Midwest, Trump is positioned to run best among white workers who in earlier times would likely have enjoyed secure, remunerative employment in unionized industries, and who could generally be counted upon to vote Democratic. The downward mobility and de-unionization of the white working class have combined over the past several decades to produce a more right-leaning sector of the electorate. But no political leader until Trump has so successfully tailored a program that addresses and stokes that sector’s anger at both the political class that enabled the offshoring of their jobs, and at the minorities and foreigners whom they see as an economic and cultural threat. Trump’s telling of the tale of offshoring is conveniently distorted: NAFTA and PNTR came about, he says, because Mexico and China “won” while the U.S. “lost.” Omitted from his account is the fact that NAFTA and PNTR were enacted at the insistence of American finance and big business. But by blaming other nations—which packed little or no clout in the congressional deliberations over these deals—Trump can and does conflate and heighten his supporters’ anger at the loss of middle-class jobs with their anger at alien “others.”
A necessary prelude to the drift of much of the white working class toward Trumpism has been deunionization. Since the advent of exit polls in the late 1960s, unionized working-class white men have voted Democratic in presidential elections at a rate 20 percentage points higher than their non-union counterparts. As the share of unionized working-class white men employed in the private sector has declined from roughly half in the mid-20th century to its current level of well under 10 percent, this cohort has moved steadily rightward. What this year’s Republican primaries have thus far made clear is that a sizable chunk of the GOP electorate was just waiting for someone like Trump to come along.
Much the same can be said of those Democratic voters who have flocked to Bernie Sanders’s standard. To a degree without precedent in American politics, Sanders’s support is concentrated among the young: He has won more than 80 percent of voters under 30 in every contest thus far, and clear majorities among voters under 45. Not coincidentally, it is the young who have borne the brunt of the Great Recession, of a recovery that has generated few middle-income jobs, of the downside of the rise in economic inequality, and of the underfunding of such previously well-funded institutions as public colleges and universities. As far back as 2011, more Americans under 30 told Pew pollsters that they had a favorable view of socialism (49 percent) than they did of capitalism (47 percent). In that sense, there was also a sizable chunk of the Democratic electorate that was just waiting for someone like Sanders to come along.
Sanders’s support among lower-income Democrats and Hillary Clinton’s support among Democrats with higher incomes (the only income cohort she carried in New Hampshire was Democrats with household incomes over $200,000) reverses the party’s longstanding pattern of primaries that have pitted a “wine-track” insurgent against a “beer track” establishment candidate. In Saturday’s upcoming South Carolina primary, Clinton’s clear edge among African American voters may well reverse this pattern, but Sanders’s ability to date to win white working-class votes is a decisive break from recent Democratic history. In 2008, it was Clinton, rather than Barack Obama, who claimed that vote.
At the core of both the Trump and Sanders coalitions are constituencies that believe, rightly, that they are having a much harder time of it than their forebears. Working-class white men did, indeed, thrive in the mid-20th century. The young boomers were able to get through college without incurring crippling debt and entered a far friendlier job market than that which greets many college graduates today. Each group is now voting as a class, but in very different ways: the Trumpians taking out their anger chiefly at minorities and immigrants who are not responsible for their economic decline, the Bernie backers directing their fire at an economic elite, and its enablers, that are indeed responsible for the shrinking of middle-class opportunities.
Both are distinct economic cohorts. Both are voting their class.