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The Mythology Of Trump’s ‘Working Class’ Support

It’s been extremely common for news accounts to portray Donald Trump’s candidacy as a “working-class” rebellion against Republican elites. There are elements of truth in this perspective: Republican voters, especially Trump supporters, are unhappy about the direction of the economy. Trump voters have lower incomes than supporters of John Kasich or Marco Rubio. And things have gone so badly for the Republican “establishment” that the party may be facing an existential crisis.

But the definition of “working class” and similar terms is fuzzy, and narratives like these risk obscuring an important and perhaps counterintuitive fact about Trump’s voters: As compared with most Americans, Trump’s voters are better off. The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. That’s lower than the $91,000 median for Kasich voters. But it’s well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It’s also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.

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These figures, as I mentioned, are derived from exit polls, which so far have been conducted in 23 primary states.1 The exit polls have asked voters to describe their 2015 family income by using one of five broad categories, ranging from “under $30,000” to “$200,000 or more.” It’s fairly straightforward to interpolate a median income for voters of each candidate from this data; for instance, we can infer that the median Clinton voter in Wisconsin made about $63,000.2 You can find my estimates for each candidate in each state in the following table, along with each state’s overall household median income in 2015.3

MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME
STATE STATEWIDE* CLINTON SANDERS CRUZ KASICH TRUMP
Maryland $79k $92k $77k $92k $119k $95k
New Hampshire 76 84 69 77 99 78
Connecticut 73 102 75 101 119 99
Virginia 69 83 71 79 114 82
Massachusetts 65 87 68 84 107 93
Vermont 63 80 61 62 85 70
Wisconsin 60 63 63 80 76 69
Missouri 59 58 53 64 80 62
Illinois 57 61 66 74 99 79
Pennsylvania 57 59 57 64 83 71
New York 56 64 65 56 83 85
Texas 56 63 62 82 98 78
Michigan 54 56 51 62 75 61
Georgia 51 59 55 88 89 70
Ohio 51 59 62 62 92 64
Oklahoma 49 57 54 71 102 69
Florida 48 51 50 64 87 70
North Carolina 48 59 56 74 92 62
Arkansas 47 47 49 67 67 63
South Carolina 47 39 47 64 108 72
Tennessee 45 61 52 73 82 64
Alabama 44 44 53 63 75 58
Mississippi 37 38 39 64 97 62
All states** 56 61 61 73 91 72
Trump voters, like others in the GOP, have relatively high incomes

* The state median includes all households, not just those that voted in the primaries.
** The aggregate estimate is weighted based on the number of votes a candidate received in each state.

Source: Edison Research Exit Polls, Census bureau

Trump voters’ median income exceeded the overall statewide median in all 23 states, sometimes narrowly (as in New Hampshire or Missouri) but sometimes substantially. In Florida, for instance, the median household income for Trump voters was about $70,000, compared with $48,000 for the state as a whole. The differences are usually larger in states with substantial non-white populations, as black and Hispanic voters are overwhelmingly Democratic and tend to have lower incomes. In South Carolina, for example, the median Trump supporter had a household income of $72,000, while the median for Clinton supporters was $39,000.

Ted Cruz voters have a similar median income to Trump supporters — about $73,000. Kasich’s supporters have a very high median income, $91,000, and it has exceeded $100,000 in several states. Rubio’s voters, not displayed in the table above, followed a similar pattern to Kasich voters, with a median income of $88,000.

Many of the differences reflect that Republican voters are wealthier overall than Democratic ones, and also that wealthier Americans are more likely to turn out to vote, especially in the primaries. However, while Republican turnout has considerably increased overall from four years ago, there’s no sign of a particularly heavy turnout among “working-class” or lower-income Republicans. On average in states where exit polls were conducted both this year and in the Republican campaign four years ago, 29 percent of GOP voters have had household incomes below $50,000 this year, compared with 31 percent in 2012.

STATE 2012 2016
Alabama 37% 41%
Florida 34 33
Georgia 24 26
Illinois 28 23
Maryland 19 19
Massachusetts 24 20
Michigan 35 37
Mississippi 36 37
New Hampshire 26 27
Ohio 32 30
Oklahoma 41 30
South Carolina 36 27
Tennessee 35 33
Vermont 37 30
Virginia 25 19
Wisconsin 32 28
Average 31 29
Share of Republican electorate with household income below $50,000

Source: EDISON RESEARCH EXIT POLLS

The median income for Clinton and Sanders voters — $61,000 for each candidate — is generally much closer to the overall median income in each state. But even Democratic turnout tends to skew slightly toward a wealthier electorate, somewhat validating Sanders’s claim that “poor people don’t vote.” I estimate that 27 percent of American households had incomes under $30,000 last year. By comparison, 20 percent of Clinton voters did, as did 18 percent of Sanders supporters. (Those figures imply Clinton might have a bigger edge on Sanders if more poor people voted, although it would depend on whether they were black, white or Hispanic.) Both Democratic candidates do better than the Republicans in this category, however. Only 12 percent of Trump voters have incomes below $30,000; when you also consider that Clinton has more votes than Trump overall, that means about twice as many low-income voters have cast a ballot for Clinton than for Trump so far this year.

SHARE OF VOTERS
HOUSEHOLD INCOME SHARE OF ALL U.S. H’HOLDS CLINTON SANDERS CRUZ KASICH TRUMP
<$30,000 27% 20% 18% 11% 9% 12%
$30,000-$49,999 18 21 23 17 14 20
$50,000-$99,999 29 30 34 41 31 34
$100,000-$199,999 20 22 21 25 32 25
≥$200,000 6 7 5 6 14 9
Low-income voters are underrepresented, especially in the GOP

Source: EDISON RESEARCH EXIT POLLS

Class in America is a complicated concept, and it may be that Trump supporters see themselves as having been left behind in other respects. Since almost all of Trump’s voters so far in the primaries have been non-Hispanic whites, we can ask whether they make lower incomes than other white Americans, for instance. The answer is “no.” The median household income for non-Hispanic whites is about $62,000,4 still a fair bit lower than the $72,000 median for Trump voters.

Likewise, although about 44 percent of Trump supporters have college degrees, according to exit polls — lower than the 50 percent for Cruz supporters or 64 percent for Kasich supporters — that’s still higher than the 33 percent of non-Hispanic white adults, or the 29 percent of American adults overall, who have at least a bachelor’s degree.

This is not to say that Trump voters are happy about the condition of the economy. Substantial majorities of Republicans in every state so far have said they’re “very worried” about the condition of the U.S. economy, according to exit polls, and these voters have been more likely to vote for Trump. But that anxiety doesn’t necessarily reflect their personal economic circumstances, which for many Trump voters, at least in a relative sense, are reasonably good.

Check out our live coverage of the Indiana primary elections.

Footnotes

  1. Exit polls — or to be more technical, entrance polls — were also conducted for the Iowa and Nevada caucuses, but they didn’t provide the same level of detail about voters’ incomes, so I do not include them in this analysis.
  2. The main “trick” is that I use Census Bureau microdata in each state to provide more precise estimates than the exit polls’ broad ranges. Empirically, the median of an income range is not the same as its midpoint. For example, you might assume that the median income of voters in households earning between $50,000 and $100,000 a year is about $75,000. In fact, it’s closer to $70,000, although this varies somewhat from state to state.
  3. The Census Bureau’s most recent estimates of state median incomes are from 2014 and are denominated in 2014 dollars, whereas the exit poll asked voters for their 2015 incomes. As a result, I increased the Census Bureau’s estimated median incomes in each state by 3.6 percent, which is the nominal growth in U.S. GDP (not adjusted for inflation) from 2014 to 2015.
  4. This is based on adjusting the Census Bureau’s 2014 figure upward by 3.6 percent to make it comparable to 2015.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Filed under 2016 Election 1024 posts, Donald Trump 576, 2016 Republican Primary 315

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