Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
From Youngstown, Ohio, to Wausau, Wisconsin, it was the towns with big shares of middle-income households that flipped their political allegiances in 2016.
Buffalo, New York. Erie, Pennsylvania. Youngstown, Ohio. These and many other majority middle-class counties voted for Barack Obama in 2008, paving his path to the White House. In 2016, a majority of them flipped for Donald Trump.
That was among the crucial reasons the GOP prevailed in this election, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis. In it, researchers looked at the past voting patterns of metro areas where at least 55 percent of the population lived in middle-income households in 2014. (A household of three members was middle-income in 2014, if it brought in between $42,000 to $125,000 a year. The share of Americans that live in such households nationwide is 51 percent.)
There were 57 such communities, most of them in the Midwest and the Northeast—places like Monroe, Michigan, Scranton, Pennsylvania, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Owensboro, Kentucky. These are towns that are neither booming nor dying: They’re holding their own, economically, and have a large share of households that are pulling in two-thirds to double the national median.
The middle-class metros roughly split down the aisle in 2008—30 went to Obama, 27 for John McCain. Eight years later, the GOP-leaning areas remained loyal, but 18 out of the 30 that voted Democrat in 2008 switched sides. That means out of 57 middle-class metros, 48 voted for Trump. (The total number of metros analyzed were 221.)
In some places, the dip in support for the Democratic candidate was drastic. In Wausau, which is almost 70 percent middle class, only 38 percent of voters went to Hillary Clinton, compared to 54 percent for Barack Obama in 2008, In Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the decrease in the Democrat share of votes was as much as 20 percentage points.
Metros with a smaller middle-class share (50 to 55 percent) also largely went to Trump. But in the 49 metro areas where the middle class makes up less than 50 percent—communities with bigger shares of either lower- or higher-earners—the Democrats took 31 metros, compared to 18 on the GOP side, nearly unchanged from 2008. In Pew’s graph below, the red, solid dots represent metros that switched from Democrat to Republican between 2008 and 2016:
What made Trump’s message resonate so in these middle-class metros? That’s the question that has launched a thousand thinkpieces about the real or imagined Rust Belt Revolt. From a policy point of view, it looks a lot like Donald Trump’s presidency isn’t likely to do their residents any favors. Repealing Obamacare is going to hurt members of the middle class who earned less than $50,000 a year, particularly in the Rust Belt and Midwest, as my colleague Vann Newkirk II writes in The Atlantic. And his tax plan isn’t likely to cut them a break either.
Perhaps this is just the latest chapter in the longer story of how the GOP has managed to successfully portray itself as the true representative of the middle class—in particular, the white middle class—even as its economic policies don’t always back up that claim. As Thomas Frank wrote back more than a decade ago in What’s the Matter With Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America:
In the backlash imagination, America is always in a state of quasi-civil war: on one side are the unpretentious millions of authentic Americans; on the other stand the bookish, all powerfuI liberals who run the country but are contemptuous of the beliefs and tastes of the people who inhabit it. When the chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1992 announced to a national TV audience, "We are America" and "those other people are not," he was merely giving new and more blunt expression to a decades-old formula.
That formula, it turns out, still works pretty well in 2016.