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.