How Mobilizing the Poor Might Have Changed the Election


The left is trying to figure out how we lost this election to Trump, and it is a worthy and important question. The most common reason that has been proposed is that working class whites voted for Trump because they are racist, but there are several problems with that argument, and it’s reflective of the way we struggle to talk about class in this country. Often when we want to talk about class it is kind of hard to find the raw data because we very rarely study class in this country, and there are lots of reasons for this, including representation in academia and funding issues. Which is to say, that it isn’t anyone’s fault that people are unaware of this but fortunately we have the data now to truly analyze this.

Determining Who Voted for Whom by Social Class

As in previous years, the rich were more likely to vote for the Republican and this is consistent with just about every election in modern history, the rich are more likely to vote Republican. Here are the turnout rates by class for 2012. You are free and welcome to look at previous years, but it won’t change. The Republicans have carried the rich vote for the last 30 years.

Image 1: Turnout Rates by Class 2012

Now, here is the exit poll data by class for 2016. As you will see, the ONLY class groups Clinton carried were the poor.


Image 2: Voting Rates by Class 2016

In 2016, the Democrats carried the working classes, and the Republicans carried the middle and upper classes.

Why Education is NOT a proxy for class

Now, many people have noted that more uneducated whites voted for Trump, and have designated these people “working class.” This is strange for two reasons

  1. The majority of educated whites also voted for Trump.
  2. No other country uses education levels as a proxy for class, and education is not determinative of class in this country.

Only 30 percent of the country has a BA and even attending an Ivy League school doesn’t have an impact on your class UNLESS you are poor. America is in a period of a historic lack of social mobility. In fact, the numbers are so low that economists have been confused by it for years. People who are rich remain rich and the poor remains poor, no amount of education is really successful at changing that. A possible exception is the TINY amount of folks like me that attended an Ivy League school, we do tend to rise up after getting over our handicaps in our 20s, but then we also have worse health outcomes than the people we left behind. And actually most of us don’t rise up at all.   For the poor, college has not been a source of upward mobility. So using education as a proxy for class only makes sense if you have absolutely no understanding of the definition of class AND you weren’t aware of the lack of social mobility. It is fine to admit that you are ignorant of these things, it is not ok to continue to push them after you become aware.

Democratic Turnout is a Better Explanation for What Happened

Now, as far as why the Democrats lost this year, let’s take a look at turnout numbers. Here are the numbers for 2012, when Obama won the Rust Belt

Image 3: Turnout Rates by Year

As you can see, turnout in 2012 was 57.5 percent. Here are the numbers for 2016.

Image 4: Turnout rates for 2016

As you can see, turnout in 2012 was 55%, which is more than 2 percentage points lower than in 2012. That 2 percent is enough to make up the difference of what Clinton lost, without converting any Stein supporters at all. In fact, the Democratic party was short 6 million votes in total from 2012. Many of those votes went to third parties, and the poor were the most likely group to vote third party, but she didn’t need all 6 million to throw her over the edge because she lost by a small amount of votes in key states. In 2016, there was a marked decrease in turnout.

Why Turnout was Lower

So now the question is, why didn’t people vote and who was most unlikely to vote. This data has turnout rates by class.

Image 5: Turnout Rates by Class

As you can see from the data, turnout rates are lower for the poor than they are for other groups. This has pretty much always been true and though I could list the reasons, I’ll let the data speak for itself. Here are the reasons people gave for not voting.

Image 6: Reasons people didn’t vote

The top three reasons are reasons that disproportionately affect the poor. Much of the poor don’t vote for logistical reasons, like their work schedule or their health. Some don’t vote because they either don’t know how or have given up on voting meaning anything. Voter suppression is much more likely to happen to poor people, so many have faced barriers and have subsequently just given up.  We know voter suppression was a major issue this year. In fact, voter suppression was also an issue during the primaries, so those people had been recently disenfranchised.

Note that this is only for REGISTERED VOTERS, most of the poor isn’t even registered at all. It’s been noted that Trump won areas with poor health, and as you can see, poor health was a substantial barrier to the poor voting. Poor whites also have a declining mortality, which goes against the trends for other groups.

In fact, poor whites have lost almost ten years of their life in the last 20. The verdict is still out on all the causes, but the bottom line is that many of these people simply didn’t vote for legitimate reasons.

Enthusiasm Gap for Clinton

Hillary also experienced an enthusiasm gap in 2016. Here is the percentage of registered voters who intended to actually vote in 2016 vs. 2012, and as we can see from image 6, the fourth most common reason for not voting was a distaste for the candidates.

Image 7: Registered voters intention to vote 2012 v. 2016

That’s a pretty significant decline and considering that Sanders carried many of the areas Hilary lost in the primary, it suggests that the people might have turned out for a candidate they believed in. Which is to say that the same people that elites have been blaming and calling racists were more likely to turn out for a Socialist from a working class background.

Conclusions and Some Preliminary Thoughts

Taken all together, it seems pretty clear that the Democrats lost because they failed to mobilize the poor to vote. A slightly higher turnout might have saved us, and the reasons people had for not voting were preventable barriers that the elites could have worked and mobilized around but they didn’t.

In fact, working class whites, seem to have voted mostly like other minority groups. This despite the fact that the left made no efforts to reach them and have been mocking them for years. This demonstrates that there is a strong possibility for the working class whites to associate themselves with the struggle of the rest of the poor. Many of them have an identity based on their class background and have been working actively against racism. They live near more minorities, interracially marry more often, and can identify with the rest of the poor. This means there is amazing potential to turn these people into active and empowered members of the left.

I get why the folks on the right keep pushing this narrative. The only time the elites have been in danger of revolt in this country was during the beginning of this nation when all of the working classes got together and transcended race during Shay’s Rebellion. It scared them so much that they rewrote many laws to ensure that poor whites, first peoples and free and enslaved blacks didn’t work together. This is where anti-miscegenation laws come from. They want to continue to push this narrative to divide and conquer and ensure that we never work together or never try to really change the economic structure of society. It’s important to remember that the segregationists worst fear was that if we all went to school together, we would fall in love with each other. Rebellion in this country, looks a lot like love.

It only works to our advantage to fold poor whites into our movement and they are primed for that co-option. We can do it AND still talk about race without taking away anything from any other group. There is a huge tradition among activists in the United States who have attempted to do just that. In fact, it was part of Martin Luther King’s last campaign before he died. Howard Zinn was talking about this during the 60s, and in what eventually became his book, A People’s History of the United States. If you consider yourself progressive or revolutionary, you’ve been pushing this narrative because you are ignorant and simply didn’t know, which is absolutely fine! We all have to learn. Our school systems, media, and social segregation make it hard to uncover this information.

But if you are really want to scare the elites, you’ll break up this narrative as quickly as you can and start mobilizing the working classes.


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