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The Democrats Lost Some Working-Class Support in the Midterms

The slippage is among nonwhite voters. But don’t despair: Union households, after stumbling in 2016, got back their Democratic mojo.

A steelwork apprentice
Megan Jelinger/Getty Images
A student stands for a portrait at Ironworkers Local 29 during a steelwork apprenticeship in Dayton, Ohio.

The midterms failed to produce the predicted red wave, but the working class’s migration to the GOP continued, and that isn’t good news for the Democrats.

The standard demographic shorthand for working-class voters is “non-college voter.” Nationally, exit polls show the Democrats lost a significant five percentage points among this group. In 2018 and 2020, Democrats captured 49 and 48 percent of non-college voters, a significant improvement on the 43 percent they won in the annus horribilis of 2016. In all three of these previous elections, Republicans won 49 or 50 percent of the non-college vote. But in 2022 the Democrats were back to 43 percent of the non-college vote, and Republicans won 55 percent, which is actually more than they won in  2016.

The shift was not among non-college white voters. These white working-class voters have been identified as a core MAGA constituency, most especially the men. White working-class voters went 66 percent for Donald Trump in 2016 and 67 percent for Trump in 2020.  The same percentage of white working-class voters, 66 percent, voted Republican in 2022. (White working-class Trump support dipped to 61 percent in the 2018 midterms, but we can set that aside as the usual midterm disaffection with the presidential party.) This consistency in white working-class voting patterns means the Democrats’ slippage from 48 or 49 percent to 43 percent of the working-class vote, and the GOP’s corresponding gain from 49 or 50 percent to 55 percent, represents a shift among nonwhite working-class voters. That probably reflects mainly a shift among working-class Latinos. After swinging toward Republicans by eight percentage points in 2020, all Latinos (not just working-class Latinos) swung a couple more percentage points toward the GOP in 2022. As my New Republic colleagues Tori Otten and Michael Tomasky point out, this was not the major realignment some may have feared. But the shift among working-class Latinos was probably larger than the shift among all Latinos, and there may have been some shift among working-class Blacks as well.

An important caveat: Demographic breakdowns in exit polls tend to be a bit shaky. We’ll have better numbers from the census later on. The trends I’m describing here are the best we can do today, but we’ll be able to do better several months from now (when everybody’s paying a lot less attention).

AFL-CIO spokesman Steve Smith acknowledged the Democrats’ working-class losses. “The turnout in 2022 was not as high, obviously, as in a presidential race,” he said, “and there’s a deeper frustration, I think, on economic issues. If the numbers are a little off … those are things that would explain that.” Smith said Republicans talked mostly about crime and inflation, while Democrats talked mostly about democracy and abortion, so “it wasn’t your typical election in that respect.” Talking about democracy and abortion may have served, for the electorate as a whole, to minimize the Democrats’ midterm losses, but not necessarily for working-class voters. They might have preferred more talk about the infrastructure bill and Republican plans to cut Social Security and Medicare.

There is a little bit of good news in the exit polls regarding the Democrats’ working-class constituency, or what’s left of it. Democratic support among union households is holding steady. In 2016 Hillary Clinton won only 51 percent of voters from union households, the smallest percentage of any Democratic presidential nominee since the Reagan era. That was terrifying. But it had less to do with union households supporting Trump than with union households abhorring Clinton; the votes Clinton lost went mainly to third-party candidates. By 2018, union households were back to supporting Democrats at the usual rate of about 55 percent. In 2020 Joe Biden won 56 percent of union households, and in 2022 Democrats won 57 percent.

There were some initial reports that in Ohio, Democrat Tim Ryan failed to win a clear majority of union households in his unsuccessful Senate race against the world-historic phony J.D. Vance. That would have been a shock, because Ryan ran a pretty effective pro-labor campaign. But the initial reports turned out to be wrong. Ryan won union households by 57 percent, in line with the national trend. Ohio is a traditionally pro-union state, so it’s important for Democrats to keep winning union households there. Sadly, it is no longer a national leader in union membership; 17 states have higher union density now than Ohio, including, improbably, Maine, Vermont, and Rhode Island. (Remember that a larger proportion of the workforce in states with small populations work for state and local government, where union membership is much more common than in the private sector.)

It’s also good news that in Michigan, Democrats won control of the state legislature for the first time in 40 years, along with Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s reelection victory. About one-quarter of all households in Michigan are union households, Smith notes, and Whitmer won 62 percent of them.

It’s also worth noting that although the Democratic Party has come to be dominated by the professional classes and even to some extent by Wall Street, the midterm results demonstrate that it’s an oversimplification to say that it’s the party of the prosperous. It all depends, obviously, on how you break these things down, but in the midterms, exit polls show Democrats won a 52 percent majority of voters from households earning $52,000 or less; only a 45 percent minority of voters from households earning $55,000 to $99,000; and a 46 percent minority of voters earning $100,000 or more. It may make people earning $100,000 uncomfortable for me to say so, but if you pull down that salary, then you’re wealthier than two-thirds of the U.S. population, and if you divide the population evenly into “poor,” “middle class,” and “rich,” then you are, inescapably, rich. So don’t act surprised that your cohort favors Republicans over Democrats. If you set the threshold higher, then yes, you can probably find an income cohort of doctors and lawyers and such where the majority votes Democratic. But if you set the threshold even higher to capture the extremely rich, a majority will reliably vote Republican.

What does this add up to? The Democrats mustn’t give up on representing the working class. The party of the common man (and woman) still has a fighting chance to win back their votes. And for all the Democrats’ pandering to affluent voters, not so many of these toffs vote Democratic as Tucker Carlson (estimated net worth: $30 million) would have you believe.