So is Roseanne right about Trump and his victory in the 2016 presidential elections? Normally I wouldn’t attach any special importance to what an entertainer thinks about politics (or anything else outside entertainment). But Roseanne Barr’s claim in the wake of her sitcom’s revival and reboot that “it was working-class people who elected Trump” has intensified an already heated debate among many American politicians and political analysts and consultant types about the real lessons that Democrats should be learning from that shocking White House loss. And coincidentally, new evidence has just appeared awarding the win to Roseanne.
By way of background, this debate is really two closely related debates, and they could not be more politically charged. The first, as indicated above, entails whether the Trump triumph mainly stemmed from a genuine populist revolt fueled by both the economic and social/cultural anxieties of Main Street Americans, or whether it principally represented a victory for the kinds of relatively affluent voters who tend strongly to vote Republican.
The second has to do with the size and continuing importance of the white middle and working class vote. Is it rapidly becoming a minor portion of the electorate, or despite demographic shrinkage, will its preferences remain decisive for many years?
The implications? If the 2016 elections were a standard Republican victory, then Democrats’ pitch to working- and middle-class doesn’t have to change much because they’re still generally voting for the party. So maybe Democrats simply need a better candidate than Hillary Clinton (who did, after all, win the popular vote). And if the those aforementioned white voters are quickly losing their historic dominance over presidential politics (because their shares of the total population and electorate are falling quickly), then Democrats can feel freer than they already do to focus more on the issues – like greatly loosening American immigration policies – that supposedly animate increasingly significant racial and ethnic groups even if this strategy might turn off working- and middle-class whites.
Roseanne’s comments generated considerable and vigorous pushback. (See here, here, and here for examples.) But it seems that her critics’ case is based on exit poll data from the 2016 race that public opinion experts now believe was seriously off-base. According to an article by the New York Times‘ Thomas Edsall, more recent studies have concluded that the exit polls seriously overestimated Trump’s support “among well-educated white voters” – and therefore seriously underestimated the President’s backing by less well-educated (and generally less affluent) whites. Moreover, those exit polls
“substantially underestimated the number of Democratic white working-class voters — many of whom are culturally conservative — and overestimated the white college-educated Democratic electorate, a far more culturally liberal constituency.”
“33 percent of Democratic voters and Democratic leaners are whites without college degrees. That’s substantially larger than the 26 percent of Democrats who are whites with college degrees — the group that many analysts had come to believe was the dominant constituency in the party.
“According to [the Pew Research Center], this noncollege white 33 percent makes up a larger bloc of the party’s voters than the 28 percent made up of racial and ethnic minorities without degrees. It is also larger than the 12 percent of Democratic voters made up of racial and ethnic minorities with college degrees.”
Further, Edsall cites reports from Pew finding that whites without college degrees also continued to comprise a pretty big share of Americans who voted in the last presidential race: 44 percent, to be precise. That’s fully ten percentage points higher than their share reported in the exit polls.
As the author makes clear, such polling is still far from an exact science, and many of the pollsters he quotes seem to agree. But unless the latest studies – and the consensus they appear to represent – are whoppingly wrong, they make clear that the Democrats’ leftward, “resistance”-oriented tilt since the 2016 elections reveals a learning curve that has not only been unusually shallow, but that appears to be growing ever flatter.