How Donald Trump exploited the rickety foundation of the Obama coalition
How weak was Donald Trump's victory over Hillary Clinton? He lost the popular vote and even turned out Republican voters in lower numbers than Mitt Romney and John McCain. But Trump won the presidency with a blitzkrieg: He broke the Obama coalition by targeting its weakest point, and hitting it full force.
That coalition was supposed to be a mishmash of well-educated urban whites, Latinos, African-Americans, women, and young people. It drove Obama to victory in 2008 and again in 2012. And Hillary Clinton put it together again this year, winning all those categories by big, and sometimes massive, margins. It was supposed to ensure Democrats' domination at the national level as demographics continued to turn their way.
Instead, Trump shattered that coalition by flipping almost the entire Rust Belt: Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and probably Michigan. Obama won all those states in 2008, and only lost one in 2012. Trump's margins in the Appalachian states of West Virginia and Kentucky blew away McCain's margins in 2008. Clinton's margin in Virginia was a sliver compared to Obama's eight years ago.
This geographic swath roughly overlaps with the areas of the country hit hardest by economic shocks from globalized trade. Counties swung to Trump over Romney where jobs are more at risk from offshoring and automation, where unemployment was higher, where job growth and earnings are lower, and where people are being bled by mortgages.
Not only has polling repeatedly underplayed the importance of white voters without college degrees, it's underplayed their importance to the Obama coalition: They were one-third of Obama votes in 2012. They filled the gap between upper-class whites and working-class nonwhites. Trump gained roughly 15 percentage points with them compared to Romney in 2012. Trump went right into ground zero for America's deindustrialization and economic rot — states that have historically been a political fortress for the Democrats — and ripped out a big chunk of working-class whites.
But there's more. Clinton's margin with all voters making under $30,000 collapsed compared to Obama in 2012 — by far the biggest swing in any income group. Meanwhile, those making over $100,000 swung significantly away from Trump — just not by enough to prevent him from taking a majority of that slice, as Republicans basically always do.
Trump may have reshuffled the voter coalitions, but again, overall GOP turnout was slightly down from 2008 and 2012. What made up the difference was that the Democrats' turnout absolutely cratered. Clinton's support didn't just fall among working-class whites; it fell among blacks, Hispanics, and young people as well. Meanwhile, Trump did slightly better with these groups than Romney.
Economic and class concerns didn't just keep a chunk of working-class whites in the Obama coalition — they kept the entire coalition charged and solidified.
Historically, Obama-style political alliances between a white upper class and racial minority working class have always been rickety. The upper class' interests prevent the coalition from taking any truly bold steps to help workers. And they're usually ready to abandon the arrangement as soon as their fellow aristocrats on the other side don't look too unpleasant. Meanwhile, the nonwhite working class is kept in the coalition purely because the other side is even more racist and vicious.
In the aftermath of a massive recession that decimated the party in power, and up against a brazen oligarch like Mitt Romney, the coalition held. Then along came Trump.
Instead of recognizing this danger, many liberals tried to write off the class-driven aspect of Trump's appeal. There's data that suggests Trump's support comes from people who are (relatively) well-off, but there's a lot wrong with that analysis. It ignores how costs of living have spiked for median households, much less for poor ones; it ignores how high up the income ladder wage stagnation has risen; it ignores how the same income can mean very different things in different places and life circumstances. Most of all, it ignored the raw human experience of living in communities that are dying, while distant cities with alien cultures grow fat and powerful and self-righteous.
Meanwhile, media and political commentators obsessed over the xenophobia of Trumpism. They attributed the candidate's rise to racist backlash against immigrants and the first black president, or to Trump giving racist Americans permission to cut loose. Others lamented that the country hates women so much it refused to elect a female president.
And there is hard truth in all of that. But it's also true that most of the people doing that obsessing — along with the movers and shakers in the Democratic Party, its well-educated urban voters, and its supporting lobbies and think tanks — enjoy the commanding heights of class privilege. They may not all be white, male or straight, but they share that one overwhelming blind spot.
So the Democratic Party dismissed the Rust Belt and Appalachia as politically unnecessary. Obama campaigned in these places; Clinton did not. The Democratic Party initially sneered at Bernie Sanders' demands for single payer health care, free universal college, a $15 minimum wage, and a giant boost to infrastructure spending. The party was only pushed into some semblance of bold economic experimentation when Sanders became an undeniable threat. But by then it was too late for Clinton's image. Ultimately, the Democrats had nothing to offer the people of the Rust Belt other than some policy tweaks, plus the regrettable-but-wonky assurance that their jobs aren't coming back, so they shouldn't vote for the con man.
Except the con man still had something to sell. It may be befuddling that Trump won when Obama's approval is at an impressive 56 percent. But the simplest explanation is that many working-class Americans view Trump as a plausible continuation of the sweeping change they hoped for with Obama. The Democrats lost because they didn't offer any plausible or straightforward alternative to the status quo.
And now we will all pay the price.