The emotional and political repercussions of Donald Trump’s victory as president will take days, months, and years to process. But a pernicious myth has already settled in post-election: that Trump’s victory was fueled by the working class and poor.
The myth that lower-income and working-class voters supported Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was repeated so much this election season that it solidified into conventional wisdom. And it will continue to have dangerous implications for our politics unless confronted.
As exit polls and county data trickle in, it’s become clear that the picture was a little more complicated.
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How Did Low-Income People Actually Vote?
Let’s start with the data. According to exit polls, Hillary Clinton won by 12 points among voters making less than $30,000 a year—53% to Trump’s 41% —and by 9 points among people making between $30,000 and $49,999. Trump’s support was the inverse. He won every group making $50,000 or more—albeit by smaller margins.
This is consistent with analysis of exit polls from the primary, which found that the median household income of Trump voters—about $72,000—was significantly higher than the median household income of the country as a whole—about $56,000. It was also higher than that of the average Clinton and Sanders voters—about $61,000 each.
Even among white voters—who were more likely to support Trump than other groups—Trump did better among middle income white voters than low-income ones. And a closer look reveals that the swing towards Trump was a lot bigger based on education, rather than income.
So Who Voted for Trump?
Trump did perform a lot better than previous Republicans with low-income voters, who historically have supported Democratic candidates by large margins. For example, Trump improved upon Mitt Romney’s margin with voters making under $30,000 a year by 16 points. But he still lost them—by 12 whole points.
The bulk of Trump’s support didn’t come from people who are most down on their luck. It came from people who are afraid they’re next. In August, research from Gallup economist Jonathan Rothwell found that, nationwide, Trump performed worse in towns that lost manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2007, and better in towns that gained them. According to Rothwell, Trump supporters “earn relatively high household incomes and are no less likely to be unemployed or exposed to competition through trade or immigration.”
So what did correspond with Trump support?
Racial resentment among white voters was particularly determinative. And according to another recent study by Ashley Jardina and Spencer Piston, Trump supporters are more likely to hold dehumanizing views of black people. A majority of Trump supporters—52%—see blacks as “less evolved” than whites (a concept thoroughly debunked by science). And 27% of Trump supporters say that African-Americans lack “self-restraint, like animals” compared to 8% of Trump opponents. This is consistent with a study by UCLA’s Michael Tesler, which found that, even during the primaries, voters with more resentment towards blacks and Muslims were more likely to vote for Trump.
What Does This Mean for Policy?
The day after the election, House Speaker Paul Ryan declared a mandate. “What Donald Trump just pulled off was an enormous political feat,” Ryan told a crowd in his hometown of Janesville, WI. “He just earned a mandate. And we now just have that unified Republican government.”
As usual, Ryan is wrong for several reasons. First and most obviously, Donald Trump lost the popular vote. One does not have to question the legitimacy of the electoral college to believe that a narrow delegate win and a popular vote loss does not grant President-elect Trump a political “mandate.”
It’s also important to remember that Trump performed particularly poorly among the very folks he—and the media—claim he represents. And, if Trump’s plan for his first 100 days in office is any indication, they are the people who are likely to bear the brunt of his policies. His tax plan (in addition to drilling a $9.5 trillion hole in the deficit) will mainly benefit the top tax brackets and corporations—exacerbating already record-high inequality. His education plan is designed to let wealthy parents pull their kids out of public schools—fueling educational inequality and segregation. And his repeal of the Affordable Care Act would take away health care from the 20 million who have gained it under the law. This would fall most acutely on low-income people and communities of color, who were least likely to have health care coverage before the law. Even his plan to renege on our climate commitments would directly harm low-income communities, who already suffer from poorer air quality, flood protections, and less access to transportation.
If Trump listened to low-income voters, he’d find that they are more likely to support ambitious policy interventions to alleviate poverty. A recent Morning Consult poll found that a majority of those making less than $50,000 a year would be willing to pay more for Medicare and Social Security. Similar majorities would be willing to fund more aid for women with infants or children, or nutritional programs.
Maybe President Trump—unlike candidate Trump—will listen to them.