The Power of the Working Class Vote

The Democrats' Educational Polarization Problem

On the individual level, of course, a working class (noncollege) vote is worth no more than any other vote. But considered in terms of the group as a whole, the calculus is quite different.

Nationally and in every state the working class vote is far larger than the college-educated vote. Because of this, if education polarization increases in the manner it has recently, with the college-educated moving toward the Democrats while the working class becomes more Republican, equal-sized shifts favor the GOP. For example, looking first at the national distribution, since the working class share of voters is 70 percent larger than the college-educated share (63 percent noncollege/37 percent college, according to 2020 Catalist data), if a one point increase in Democratic support among college voters is counter-balanced by a one point shift in support against the Democrats among the working class, the net effect would be to reduce the Democratic margin in the popular vote by half a point. If there were 5 point shifts for and against the Democrats in these two education groups, the Democratic margin would shrink by 2.5 points; if 10 point shifts for and against, the result would be a 5 point shrinkage.

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This is the national situation. But the power of the working class vote is just as strong in most swing states. According to AP/VORC VoteCast data (Catalist data not yet available on the state level), the working class/college disproportion is even higher than the national average in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. This is perhaps as one might expect.

But consider a state like Arizona. We are used to thinking of it in terms of its increasing race-ethnic diversity, which is helping drive political change in the state. But that trend obscures another fact: it’s still a heavily working class state, significantly above the national average. That means that shifts among working class voters in Arizona are potentially even more powerful than those described for the nation as a whole.

Democrats have hitherto not worried much about the possible impact of overall working class shifts. That’s because the nonwhite working class vote functioned, in effect, as the Democrats’ firewall. If the nonwhite working class vote remained stable, that assured the nonwhite vote as a whole would remain mostly stable, given that nonwhite voters are so heavily working class. This in turn would allow Democrats to keep reaping demographic dividends from a reliable trend of increasing vote share for nonwhites.

This was always a questionable strategy, since the rapidly decreasing support for Democrats among white working class voters has been enough in many places and elections to negate the pro-Democratic effect of rising diversity. But it is much more untenable now, since the nonwhite working class vote can no longer be considered a firewall for the Democrats. Since 2012, running against Trump twice, Democrats have lost 18 margin points (two party vote) off of their support among nonwhite working class voters. Available data indicate that there was a particularly large shift against the Democrats among Hispanic working class voters in the 2020 election. These trends suggest Democrats need to start thinking about how the working class as a whole may shift, not just their familiar problem with whites.

In doing so, they need to recognize the power of the working class vote and the fundamentally disadvantageous tradeoff for Democrats that is implicit in current educational polarization. They will not always be able to count on exceptionally large shifts among college voters, particularly white college voters, as they had in 2020 to overcome other, negative shifts. It is time for Democrats to get their heads out of the sand on their emerging working class problem.

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