The 2016 election, however, was something of an anomaly for blue-collar white people. Partly because Trump inspired so many non-college-educated white voters to turn out—and partly because African American turnout skidded so badly—white working-class voters declined less than usual in 2016 as a share of the electorate, States of Change concluded. But in 2018, as turnout surged among minority and younger voters, non-college-educated whites suffered a much sharper decline: Compared with 2014, they fell by 4 to 5 percentage points as a share of the total vote, according to both Catalist’s estimates and McDonald’s analysis of census figures. That’s about double their average decline from one presidential election to the next over the past quarter-century.
Ruy Teixeira, a veteran liberal analyst and a co-founder of States of Change, believes it’s likely that in 2020 the decline in blue-collar white people’s share of the total vote could again push toward the high end of recent experience, shrinking by as much as 3 percentage points, to just over 40 percent. “I think if we do have a high-turnout election that builds on the trends we saw in 2018, you might see the white non-college share decline significantly more than it did in 2016,” Teixeira says.
Those changes pose obvious problems for Trump in winning the national popular vote. But they also present a challenge for Democrats, because these shifts are not evenly distributed among the states. The electorate is not diversifying nearly as fast in the three Rust Belt states that Trump dislodged from the Blue Wall—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Those states, for years to come, will remain older and whiter than the nation overall, meaning that to win them, Democrats have to run better with older, whiter voters than they do in most places.
And while the minority population is growing steadily in existing and emerging Sun Belt battlegrounds—such as Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, and even Texas—Trump has demonstrated a formidable ability to offset that change by turning out older, rural, evangelical, and blue-collar white people in those places. In stark contrast to the national forecasts, Schwerin says Priorities USA projects that non-college-educated whites will represent a slightly larger share of the vote in the battleground states next time than they did in 2016.
Read: Democrats’ two roads to beating Trump
Unless and until Democrats can tip some of the potential Sun Belt battlegrounds, particularly Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina, the party can’t reach 270 Electoral College votes without recapturing some of the Rust Belt states least affected by demographic change.
Teixeira is one of many Democratic strategists who say the party’s top priority must remain regaining those Rust Belt states, because it cannot yet rely enough on the Sun Belt. “How can you possibly count on these states?” he says. “Democrats haven’t won Florida for a while. Arizona, they haven’t won in a million years. Georgia, Texas—are you kidding me? These are hard states. You cannot build a strategy around having to win those states.”