White Americans carried Donald Trump to the White House. He won college-educated white voters by a four-point margin over Hillary Clinton, according to exit polls. But his real victory was among members of the white working class: Twice as many of these voters cast their ballots for the president as for Clinton.
In the wake of Trump’s surprise win, some journalists, scholars, and political strategists argued that economic anxiety drove these Americans to Trump. But new analysis of post-election survey data conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic found something different: Evidence suggests financially troubled voters in the white working class were more likely to prefer Clinton over Trump. Besides partisan affiliation, it was cultural anxiety—feeling like a stranger in America, supporting the deportation of immigrants, and hesitating about educational investment—that best predicted support for Trump.
This data adds to the public’s mosaic-like understanding of the 2016 election. It suggests Trump’s most powerful message, at least among some Americans, was about defending the country’s putative culture. Because this message seems to have resonated so deeply with voters, Trump’s policies, speeches, and eventual reelection may depend on their perception of how well he fulfills it.
In September and October 2016, PRRI and The Atlantic surveyed American voters about how they were feeling about politics. Researchers specifically focused on white, working-class voters—people without college degrees or salaried jobs. This group accounts for one-third of American adults. They make up a bigger share of the population in the Midwest than they do in any other region, and more than half of rural Americans are part of the white working class.
As it turned out, this would become one of the most decisive groups of voters in the election. In November, researchers returned to this group to see how its members had voted and get a sense of why. They found that 64 percent of these voters had chosen Trump, while only 32 percent chose Clinton. While white, non-college-educated voters tend to prefer Republicans, Trump won them by a larger margin than any presidential candidate since 1980, according to the Pew Research Center.
Partisan identification strongly predicted how white, working-class people would vote. Self-described Republicans were 11 times more likely than their non-Republican peers to choose Trump. Researchers found that partisanship is most pronounced among the young: Among white working-class Americans under 30, 57 percent identified as Republican or Republican-leaning, compared to 29 percent who identified as Democratic or Democratic-leaning. By comparison, only slightly more than half of seniors 65 and over were Republicans or Republican-leaning, compared to over one-third who were Democrats or Democratic-leaning.
It may not be surprising that Republicans vote Republican. But the analysis also isolated a handful of other factors that drove white working-class voters—ones that defy post-election tropes.
Controlling for other demographic variables, three factors stood out as strong independent predictors of how white working-class people would vote. The first was anxiety about cultural change. Sixty-eight percent of white working-class voters said the American way of life needs to be protected from foreign influence. And nearly half agreed with the statement, “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country.” Together, these variables were strong indictors of support for Trump: 79 percent of white working-class voters who had these anxieties chose Trump, while only 43 percent of white working-class voters who did not share one or both of these fears cast their vote the same way.
The second factor was immigration. Contrary to popular narratives, only a small portion—just 27 percent—of white working-class voters said they favor a policy of identifying and deporting immigrants who are in the country illegally. Among the people who did share this belief, Trump was wildly popular: 87 percent of them supported the president in the 2016 election.
Nearly two-thirds of the white working class say American culture has gotten worse since the 1950s.
Finally, 54 percent of white working-class Americans said investing in college education is a risky gamble, including 61 percent of white working-class men. White working-class voters who held this belief were almost twice as likely as their peers to support Trump. “The enduring narrative of the American dream is that if you study and get a college education and work hard, you can get ahead,” said Robert P. Jones, the CEO of PRRI. “The survey shows that many white working-class Americans, especially men, no longer see that path available to them. … It is this sense of economic fatalism, more than just economic hardship, that was the decisive factor in support for Trump among white working-class voters.”
While the analysis pointed to some interesting patterns around economic status, more research is needed to confirm them. The findings contrast with much of the coverage of the election: People who said their finances are only in fair or poor shape were nearly twice as likely to support Clinton compared to those who feel more economically secure.
Although demographic factors like gender, age, geographic region, and religion weren’t statistically significant predictors of who voted for Trump, some of the other information gathered in the survey offers a portrait of how white working-class Americans feel about their status in the world. Nearly two-thirds of the white working class say American culture has gotten worse since the 1950s. Sixty-eight percent say the U.S. is in danger of losing its identity, and 62 percent say America’s growing number of immigrants threaten the country’s culture. More than half say discrimination against whites has become just as problematic as discrimination against minorities.
This analysis provides only a surface look at the concerns and anxieties of America’s white working class. Polling is a notoriously clumsy instrument for understanding people’s lives, and provides only a sketch of who they are. But it’s useful for debunking myths and narratives—particularly the ubiquitous idea that economic anxiety drove white working-class voters to support Trump. When these voters hear messages from their president, they’re listening with ears attuned to cultural change and anxiety about America’s multicultural future. It would be a mistake to use this insight to create yet another caricature of the Trump voter. But perhaps it will complicate the stereotypes about destitute factory landscapes and poor folks who had nowhere to turn but right.