These findings are bound to encourage those who believe Democrats should focus on energizing college-educated whites and minorities, who are growing in the electorate (the latter much faster than the former). But the electoral calculation for Democrats may not be that simple. For one thing, working-class whites receded last November only partly because of their waning share of the eligible voting population. They also declined because turnout in 2018, compared with 2014, surged among minorities and college-educated whites, two groups who broke mostly against Trump and the GOP, according to network exit polls. Turnout also increased among working-class whites in comparison with the previous midterm, but not as much.
If Trump mobilizes enough of his white working-class base to narrow that turnout gap in 2020, those voters may recover somewhat as a share of the total vote. Tellingly, McDonald calculates that eligible nonvoters in 2018 split exactly in half—between whites without a college degree on one side, and minorities and college-educated whites combined on the other. That leaves essentially identical pools of nonvoters for each side to target next year.
“When we get to 2020, it does seem like Trump has a little bit of opportunity for upward movement in his core constituency,” McDonald says. “But on the other side of that, we’re likely going to see much higher levels of turnout among the Democratic coalition, younger people and persons of color, compared to 2016.”
The bigger question for Democrats is geographic. The long-term erosion of blue-collar whites as a share of the national vote is unmistakable and irreversible. That trend has ominous long-term implications for a GOP that is relying more heavily than ever on squeezing greater advantage from that shrinking group. But those white voters are disproportionately represented in the pivotal Rust Belt battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin (as well as in Ohio and Iowa, which have trended further away from Democrats). Democrats wouldn’t need to focus as obsessively on those states, and on courting their large working-class white populations, if they could tip some of the diverse and growing Sun Belt states where those whites are a smaller share of the vote, such as North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia, much less Texas. (Arizona, probably the top new Sun Belt target for Democrats in 2020, actually houses an elevated number of non-college-educated whites because it attracts so many white retirees.) But until Democrats can reliably flip some of those Sun Belt states, they can’t downplay the Rust Belt in presidential contests.
Yet even a geographic concentration on the Rust Belt doesn’t necessarily require a demographic focus on blue-collar whites. Democrats could certainly win back Pennsylvania in 2020, and likely Michigan too, without appreciable gains among working-class whites if they’re able to increase turnout among minorities and improve their margins among white-collar white voters. But that’s a thin path. And it would be tougher to win Wisconsin with that approach. Non-college-educated whites make up more of the vote there than in Pennsylvania and Michigan.