After Election Night 2016, the first order of business for Democrats was to figure out what went wrong. The polls were in their favor and the pundits had Hillary Clinton as the odds on favorite, but within a few hours, that all came crashing down. When the dust had settled, the attention turned to Trump’s seemingly inexplicable success in the Midwest. Despite being widely considered a weak candidate, he performed better in the region than any Republican since George H.W. Bush. The numbers were clear – Trump had run up the margins with working class white voters in a way that previous Republicans had been unable to do. Democrats began frantically strategizing why they lost these voters and how they could win them back. Even now, at events in different states, potential nominees get questions asking if they can appeal to voters in Wisconsin, or Michigan. But for Democrats, there remains an inconvenient and harsh truth that many in the party have neglected to face: Democrats still have not hit their floor with working class whites in the Midwest. Despite the increased attention the party is giving the region, there is a distinct possibility that Trump could do even better with this group in 2020.
Trump’s 2016 Performance
The first order of business when looking forward to 2020 is to look back at 2016. For this, it’s important to look at how Trump performed in counties that are predominantly white working class. For purposes of this exercise, that is any county that is at least 80% non-Hispanic white, and less than 20% college educated. Below is a list of Trump’s performances in these counties by state:
Even in Pennsylvania and Indiana, the two Midwestern states where Trump did best in these types of counties, he still barely matched his margin nationwide. If Trump did as well in these counties in the Midwest as he did nationwide, his margin grows to over 3% in Wisconsin, and over 2% in Michigan. He also comes within 1% in Minnesota. Furthermore, the Midwest was not even the worst region in this regard for Democrats. In the South for example, Trump won these types of counties by 58%. Hillary, despite her abysmal performance in these counties, clearly did not do as poorly as she could have.
However, despite these numbers, many analysts seem to be forgetting the idea that Trump could make gains with white working class voters in 2020. Democratic gains in suburban areas get plenty of discussion, and most serious analysts believe that the 2020 Democratic nominee has a good chance of improving on Hillary Clinton’s performance in those areas. But discussion of these states almost always seems to rely on the idea that Trump hit his high water mark in these types of counties in 2016. This is not necessarily the case.
The Difficult Democratic Road to Improvement in the Midwest
In the aftermath of 2016, many Democrats expected working class white voters to come back to their column in short order. They saw their votes for Trump as a protest against Hillary Clinton, and her not visiting Wisconsin became an easy shorthand to explain why she lost there. But closer examination destroys these theories.
The first indication that the shift of white working class voters was not unique to 2016 is their response to polls about 2020. In a recent New York Times poll of battleground states, whites without a college degree broke for Trump by at least 24 points, no matter the Democratic candidate. According to the New York Times, they broke for him by 26 points in 2016. Even the white working class voters that backed Democrats in 2018 said they would back Trump again by a 2-1 margin. Despite the years of increased attention, it does not appear that if the election were held today, Democrats would come close to matching previous Democrats with these types of voters.
But again, it is not just a lack of improvement that should scare Democrats, they should also be kept up at night by the possibility that their 2020 candidate does worse than Clinton among white working class voters. This would have been unthinkable to Democrats in the aftermath of 2016, but it is a very real possibility. Regional idiosyncrasies are becoming less and less important in American politics. White working class places, especially rural and exurban ones, are beginning to vote the same no matter where in the country they are. The same goes for the cities and suburbs where Democrats have seen so much growth in the past few years. If that trend continues, Democrats could wake up the morning after the election and realize that their outreach attempts in the Midwest were akin to trying to swim up a waterfall.
But perhaps the strongest evidence that Democrats will keep bleeding support in these communities does not come from the United States at all, it comes from abroad. Across Western democracies, center-left parties have been bleeding support among working class voters, especially working class voters of the majority racial or ethnic group. Just a few weeks ago, Boris Johnson was delivered to 10 Downing St. by working class voters in the North of England that turned on Labour. Regions of France that were strongholds of the Scoialist Party have become wells of support for the National Front. Scott Morrison won an upset reelection in Australia largely thanks to gains with working class voters. Of course, there’s always a danger trying to draw conclusions about electoral politics across counties, but this trend is clear and obvious. It would be arguably arrogant for Democrats to think they could reverse this trend when every other major center-left party in the developed world has mostly failed.
Are Democrats Doomed In the Midwest?
With all this being said however, Democrats are not doomed to failure in defeating Trump. In any election, and especially presidential ones, there are many paths to victory. Trump could make gains in white working class areas and lose because his margins drop substantially in upper middle class suburbs, for example. Additionally, the midterms did provide some signs of positive movement for Democrats. In Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania, Democratic candidates at the top of the ticket did manage to show some strength in heavily white working class counties. The chart below shows how the counties in the first chart shifted relative to their states as a whole in 2018.
What this means is that in all four states, Democrats improved over Hillary in white working class counties more than they improved over her in their states as a whole. This confirms that the task Democrats have been trying to accomplish since 2016 is not impossible. Even if the recent New York Times poll is accurate, and white working class voters that switched to Democrats back Trump at a 2-1 clip, they would still make inroads that would be potentially fatal to the president.
Nothing is inevitable in politics. Trends that have been years in the making usually continue cycle to cycle, but they can also stall, or even sometimes reverse. Outcomes that are often predicted by parties or pundits are not more likely to occur just because they are repeated. Democrats face enormous pressure to make up at least some of Hillary Clinton’s losses with working class whites. But the data shows that they have an uphill climb, and any success may not be as substantial as the party is hoping. As 2020 progresses, there will be much talk about the Democratic nominee’s appeal to Trump voters, and no matter what the consensus about them becomes, it’s important to remember nothing in elections in guaranteed.