Ten Things We Now Know About the White Working Class Vote in 2020

The Dog That Didn’t Bark

Trump’s not-so-secret weapon going into the 2020 election was the white working class (noncollege) vote. That weapon didn’t work or didn’t work well enough to save him. The release of Catalist and Census data, as well as other data sources, now allow us to sketch a portrait of that demographic in the 2020 election and how their voting patterns fell short of what Trump needed.

So, here are ten things we now know about white working class voters in the 2020 election (margin shift and support figures all based on the two-party vote from Catalist):

1. White working class voters did indeed shift against Trump in 2020 relative to 2016, albeit not as much as pre-election polls suggested would happen. That 3 point shift against Trump was exactly what Trump didn’t need; what he needed was a 3 point shift toward him to replicate his 2020 success. It’s a popular, if unenlightening, exercise to claim that such-and-such a demographic group “won” the election for Biden, given the small vote margins in a handful of states. I won’t do that here but it’s fair to say that the white working class vote was “the dog that didn’t bark” in 2020.  Trump needed more of their support, not less, in 2020 and he just didn’t get it.

2. Trump lost white working class support across most states, including key swing states. This includes swing states in both the Rustbelt and the Sunbelt.

3. That said, Trump still carried white noncollege voters nationally by a wide margin—26 points according to Catalist. Other data sources have Trump’s margin even higher. With that kind of margin, the GOP will continue to dream on the political bonus from reversing the 2020 trend and shifting the group further in their direction.

4. This is underscored by the raw fact of this group’s continued large numbers. Despite a roughly 2 point drop in their share of voters from 2016, they are still 44 percent of all voters in the Catalist data (the Census data have that share at a still very large 40 percent). Moreover, the white working class share of the vote in swing Rustbelt states is much larger than the national figure (by 7-19 points).  

5. White noncollege turnout performance in 2020 was quite good. Turnout among these voters went up 6 points, according to Census data, a larger turnout increase than among white college and black voters and about the same as Latinos.

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6. The pattern of strong white working class turnout increases can also be seen across states, including swing states. Only six states saw declining turnout among white noncollege voters, while 15 states showed declining white college turnout. In all but 11 states, white working class turnout increases were larger than white college increases.

7. Even with their declining population share and Trump’s dominance of their group, white noncollege voters still made up a larger share of Biden’s coalition (32 percent) than white college voters (29 percent), according to Catalist.

8. The shift against Trump by white noncollege voters was strong in the suburbs where most of these voters actually live (contrary to popular perceptions). White noncollege voters are almost three-fifths of white voters in suburban areas and they shifted against Trump by over 5 points.

9. Even white working class rural voters shifted against Trump, albeit by a modest 2 points. Still, that was Trump’s wheelhouse.

10. The shift against Trump among white noncollege voters was almost entirely driven by men. They shifted 7 points against him, while women in this group barely moved at all (.2 points). This is a not a widely-appreciated fact, to say the least.

The Democrats will hope that dog doesn’t bark—in fact, wags its tail--in 2022 and 2024. That is a challenge the party needs to keep its eye on especially since nonwhite working class voters no longer seem like such a lock.