By James Kwak

[Updated to add another headline leading with “white voters.”]

Two days later, some of the world’s leading newspapers—or their headline-writers, at least—are saying it was all or largely about race:


screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-10-01-57-amThe respective roles of race and class in this year’s election are a highly contentious issue. I’d like to add to that contentiousness as little as possible while pointing out that this race-based framing isn’t really supported by exit poll data. I want to get ahead of the vitriol by stipulating that the exit polls don’t provide conclusive evidence for either side.

OK, here’s the data:


Those are vote shares in the presidential election by racial or ethnic group. The numbers at the right show you the shift from the previous election.* In this case, the Democratic-Republican gap among white voters shifted by 8 points toward the Republican. That’s evidence that the election was about white voters, right?

Except those are the 2012 exit polls. The 8-point shift is relative to the 2008 exit polls.

Here’s the equivalent chart for 2016:

Screen Shot 2016-11-10 at 8.09.45 AM.png

As you can see from the right-hand column, Trump did better than Romney among every racial or ethnic group. In fact, if you subtract off how he did among all voters (2 points better than Romney), his performance among whites relative to his overall performance was 1 point worse than Romney’s.

What about income? This is 2016:

Screen Shot 2016-11-10 at 8.14.39 AM.png

There are two factual statements you can make about this picture. One is that Trump lost the “working class” (under $50,000) vote. You will hear a lot of people make that statement. The other is that he did much, much better among the working class than Romney: about 11 points better (the <$30K and $30–50K groups are roughly equal in size). The Democrat always does better among poor people, in part because Democratic policies are always better for poor people, at least as a first-order matter. (The Republican theory is that their tax cuts for the rich eventually help everyone, and I don’t want to argue about that here.) But in 2016, relative to 2012, the Republican did much better among the poor and much worse among the rich.** His gains among the poor outweighed his losses among the rich by just enough to swing the election.

Looking at these pictures alone, at first glance, the story seems to be more about class than race. In politics, change happens at the margin. Trump is still not the candidate of the working class—Clinton is—but he was able to appeal to them much more successfully than Romney or McCain. As for whites, they have voted for the Republican in every election since at least 1968, and Trump didn’t expand that advantage significantly over where it stood in 2012.

But as I said earlier, I don’t think you can necessarily infer from the exit polls that class was the dominant factor and race was less significant. The problem is that we know a larger proportion of working class people voted for Trump than for Romney, but we don’t know why they voted for Trump, at least not from the data we have. We can make some guesses, but again the exit polls provide support for both stories:


(How each of these two questions provides support for a different story is left as an exercise for the reader.)

At the end of the day, we know that the “white working class” supported Trump much more strongly than it supported Romney, but we can’t tell from polling data if that was because of their judgments about Trump’s policies, their feelings about race, or their feelings about their economic status. In practice, different people in the same demographic group make political choices based on different combinations of those (and other) factors.

I think it’s important to try to understand the relative importance and the interactions of these different motivations, and how those have shifted over time. But if there’s one thing I want you take away, it’s that you can’t answer these questions by looking at aggregate polling data—even though many people will try to do exactly that in the next few days.

* Thanks to the Times for this presentation, and for the ability to switch easily from election to election. When anyone cites a poll number, your first question should be: “Relative to what?” In this case, I think the previous election is the most obvious baseline for interpretive purposes, although it certainly isn’t perfect.

** In 2012, Romney won the >$200K group by 10 points, while Trump won it by 1–2 points; you don’t see that shift in the picture because the 2012 data don’t have a break at $250K.

24 thoughts on “Narratives

  1. You missed the lack of the black vote for democrats during this election cycle, they stayed home after 8 years of towing the party line and not addressing the concerns of their people, this could have been the straw that broke the donkeys back.

  2. As Monsieur Skunk said, I think we have to look at vote totals as well as vote proportion. Did more white people come out to vote? Fewer black people?

    And anecdotally, why are white working class men so happy with the result? Why are they happy enough to make comments to strangers in public? In New England. Is it more about race, sex, or class? My guess is that they would identify with the first two before the third.

  3. Keep in mind that Clinton did not turn out the Obama vote of 2012, while Trump got the Romney vote — especially true in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin — which could have given Clinton 270 electoral votes.

    Also the popular vote is a 50/50 split — so we still have a great political divide.

  4. I’d like to see questions asked about firearms (a major issue for many people) and the weight given to Donald Trump’s sexual assaults. I suspect we lost this election to the ammosexual vote and the rape apologist vote.

  5. Over-simplifications are of course rife on the internet, (and yet on more sophisticated sites like this one the conversations lack participation). For example, the defining of the ‘powers-that-be’ of this nation as one of ‘white supremacists’ is very common on some sites. This done too at a time when blacks have been prominent and successful in a wide variety of roles in our government, and in all walks of life.
    Ironically too, even if white supremacists do in fact rule this nation, the average per capita income for blacks is about $18,000. per year. Contrarily, in sub-Saharan Africa, where the ‘supremacists’ are mostly black men…the average per capita income is $742 per year.
    So, it might be intelligently argued that ‘white supremacy’ is far superior to ‘black supremacy’. But of course that is not even remotely the common implication. Those who complain of ‘white supremacy’ are instead suggesting that the people of this nation are falling short of our collective promise that “all men are created equal”. Yet little is provided as evidence that our meritocracy is coming up short in contrast to the fact that people of color hold many high positions in our government. But at every opportunity there are voices making the claim of ‘white supremacy’ and etc, yet nearly always in some way that lacks integrity.
    So, ultimately, those who possess refined critical thinking skills are left wondering how it is that a term such as ‘white supremacy’ gets so much exposure in the media. But of course the media functions in accordance with supply and demand dynamics. Those producing media content are in fact trying to satisfy demand as a matter of practicality. But then too this effort to suit a readership is sometimes corrupted by other factors, the ‘sensibilities’ of advertisers, or an agenda… driven by sponsors or ideology or whatever. Ironically though, and hypocritically too, those who feign to stand against racist dynamics have a racist agenda of their own. The Democratic Party and its media support have been targeting, and pandering too, groups defined by race, and this has become normalized and broadly accepted. So now, in the wake of their surprising defeat, a broad range of so-called progressives, who tried so hard to simplify complicated issues into that which could then be defined by race, are exposing the fact that they too have racist tendencies by design.

  6. Ray, “sub-Saharan Africa”, people, don’t have dental bills or problems with their teeth. Could that have made the difference IN the cost of living for humans??

  7. Voter suppression is a hell of a drug.

    James, did this election affect your view on campaign finance reform being the pivotal issue in politics?

  8. Well, skunk, what are you implying here? I’m not sure what percentage of dentists happen to be white, but maybe you are suggesting that white supremacy includes the intentional degradation of black American’s teeth, lol. Then, naturally, white dentists get rich.

    Maybe I need to give the claims of white supremacy more scrutiny. White producers of candy, gum, and soda may be involved too, and of course Halloween could be part of this sinister effort too.

    Perhaps a study of what types of treats are given out in black neighborhoods, as opposed to white neighborhoods, is in order. This may be tricky though because black kids sometimes venture into white neighborhoods, but white kids are not as often allowed to trick-or-treat in black neighborhoods (racist parents). But tracking devices could be implanted on all black kids, and then the data could be purified. In any case however, this needs to be studied and dealt with before dental costs rise and completely outpace the benefits of being an American, hehehe.

    I’m with you on ‘campaign reform’, but, since HRC spent far more corporate money than what Trump did, maybe this is a bad time for that debate?

  9. No Ray, i’m talkin about over all cost of living to humans, over time, and where it is derived from, (one being the care of the mouth). It always goes up over time for some reason, and we all know the first law of gravity, what goes up, must come down. Now, how do you propose we bring the cost of living for all humans, down. I’m a depopulation guy myself.
    We had to destroy humans in order to save them, cancer was consuming the human being at a rate that was NOT sustainable and efficiency measures had to be applied. Now if you were affected negatively by these consequences, I am sorry. If not, and you have the resources to survive the consequences, the more power to you, you certainly will need them, as will everyone.
    Again, short of my resolution, what talents do you have to bring the cost of living down for all of humans?

  10. So, you would deny me an opportunity to attempt humor.

    OK then, how to bring down the cost of dentistry for a Malthusian result with consideration for the laws of gravity? Well…(thinking)…we could stop training dentists and go back to what existed in the past. Barbers could combine hair-cutting with dentistry and that would save time and money, less fossil fuel use too. Plus, more persons might kill themselves instead of going to the ‘barber’, and maybe an occasional client might bleed out or die from infection.

    If the population still expands at an alarming rate, it would thereafter, also be fairly easy to eliminate medical doctors. And of course barbers could simply offer more services, and more fuel savings should occur, along with more death.

  11. Cool then, an honestly served up, handsomely paid response, acting on a clown who can now not be found to compensate the victims of his past actions.
    But the consequences live on in epiphany, and you my friend, are no honest clown!

  12. Mr. Skunk,

    I’m not sure if I understand your last response. But I suppose that at least one of the 3 Wise men must have been a dentist, a barber, or a doctor; or… a patient of one of these (I don’t know much religious history/folklore). But your earlier assertion regarding cancer leaves me doubting that any of the Magi could have had cancer. Nor could baby Jesus be a barber for he was too young and it took several days for the training. Then too, the Magi almost never had their hair cut, nor any dental issues.

    So, the consequences you speak of must have to do with African-Americans having more cavities than sub-Saharan Africans. And this of course brings your comments full-circle and back to the subject at hand, which focuses on how Trump got elected. Your argument therefore is that African-Americans in need of dental care should thank Jesus that the Magi had not previously died of cancer. Then, there might not have been Christianity, or Trump, or those Christians who voted for Trump despite his choice of barbers or his lack of morals, and of course the African-Americans with bad teeth fit in here because so many of them are using too many resources, and resources that could be utilized to get Trump a better hair-cut if dentists were still barbers.

    I get it now.

  13. My point here is that humans are a doomed specious, and you have no “reasonable” content to add to reduce the suffering of this specious, so i guess your vote don’t count here.

  14. Well, you have ‘reasonable’ so adroitly covered that I chose to focus on other goals.
    Plus, who would have guessed that “specious” might be doomed? But then too, I have never really worried much about the longevity of the “superficially plausible, but actually wrong”. But maybe it is more important than I am able to understand? Its not like unreasonable clowns are known for their understanding of such things.


    1.superficially plausible, but actually wrong:

    “a specious argument”
    misleading in appearance, especially misleadingly attractive:

    “the music trade gives Golden Oldies a specious appearance of novelty”

    synonyms: misleading · deceptive · false · fallacious ·

  15. Sorry if my English is a pain in the neck to you, gluttony is a deadly sin for a reason, 1000 of them make for death by a thousand cuts, you found one, congratulations. Sometimes it only takes one to take a life. Take care of yourself Ray, for that is all there is of you.

  16. What is clear is that the Democrats went all out to loose this race with their Clinton-hubris. To win a race, it behooves one to pick a candidate who is at least not viscerally hated by the opposite side. The Democrats knew they were doing this and didn’t care.

    Another thing I’m seeing is that the talking heads are quick to discuss every group expect the obvious one which points to why Clinton lost: she was such a poor candidate that she didn’t even attract the women’s vote in satisfactory numbers. Obama got over 90% of the black vote; his most obvious characteristic. For all the talk about breaking the glass ceiling, apparently many women would prefer a glass ceiling to Clinton. Ignoring this is akin to Gore not winning Tennessee or Arkansas and then moron Democrats blaming Nader.

    The last point is that the Democrats were shown the problem with the electoral college in 2000 and most did nothing about it. They should have been up in arms and brought the government to a halt until the system was changed to a straight vote system or even better a run off system. (And while I’m at it what kind of ridiculous system has senators from the same state elected in different years–so if you have 51% of the vote you get 2-senators and at 49% you have no representation. And why are we voting for congressmen every 2-years?)

    So now if Ginsburg and Breyer die, and Kennedy retires, we’ll have 7-youngish conservative justices on the Supreme Court for a generation. Brought to you by the morons in the Democratic party.

  17. Pompous just like Andrew. Stock market and recession. Get out in the real world and out of the classroom.

  18. Percentages and generalized categories based solely on race and gender are not going to explain much. Voter turnout was, according to CNN, the lowest in 20 years. Yet “…Early results in some of the key states that propelled President-elect Donald Trump to his win reveal that more voters cast ballots this year than in 2012, even though overall turnout was down Identity subgroupings are regional, age related, peer related and media influenced as much as these are urban/rural divisions that have different exposures and distinctive self interests both socially and economically let alone their predetermined political and cultural bias. The methodology of how these overall populations were managed (or manipulated into aggregate returns) is more about media and social conformity than simple gender and race; unless of course we are looking to selectively test these two categories and not truly discover motivations and shared incentives that made choices seem common.

    Who, for example, was more willing or susceptible to Big Lies and Manufactured uncertainty and fallacious controversies?
    How did voting populations divide between candidates based upon political managed messaging and market management sophistication; or emotional appeals?
    Trump may have told the truth too well and covered his own tracks when he ranted about rigged elections, but the facts are clear that the news media failed miserably with trolls, schills and political puppets ritually repeating a dumb down message to a selected aggregate that did turn out, and perhaps a similar discouraging target to a great number that did not show up. In the end, what we do know for certain is that the polls were not reliable and possibly tilted the elections unwittingly in their own self-authoritarian biased confirmations.

  19. The bar is getting low around here, I just saw a cobra swallow Dangerfields golf ball after the kangaroo dropped it.

  20. Schumer indicated that Clinton would pick up two disaffected suburban votes for ever rural vote that Clinton lost. That understanding ended up being completely misguided.

    Trump said some horrible things and is a bad person. But Clinton’s comments about wanting to “put a lot of coal miners out of work” in the spring — was not forgotten. Her “deplorables” and “irredeemable” attacks helped to mobilize people even more. The fact that Clinton, an extremely wealthy and privileged politician, was punching down probably blunted the outrage that people might have felt about Trump’s words and actions. He at least made an effort to campaign in their areas and to pay lip service to issues of concern. Clinton spent almost no time in rural areas in the midwest during the fall (or the spring) and her celebrity validation strategy was no substitute.

    In 2012 Obama was actually able to win in places like Virginia almost entirely on the strength of urban and suburban centers, even though voters in rural parts of the state had largely turned against him (including those who had supported him in 2008). This was a deviation from past races, in places like Virginia, where Dems had to run statewide and keep margins close in areas where the GOP played the strongest. Obama’s team effectively abandoned the 2008 universalist message and focused in 2012 on turning out core supporters. Bush did the same in 2004.

    The problem is that Clinton ran a campaign focused heavily on cross-over votes while ignoring core Democratic constituencies and completely ceding rural entire areas in the mid-west to Trump. To the extent that there was outreach, it was usually in the form of rich celebrity validators.

    I think if Clinton’s team had a more positive message and had a set of easy to understand policies and had emphasized those in commercials, it might have helped at least win the presidency and been more effective than turning the entire focus into a Trump-disqualification campaign. The decision to blur the distinctions between the parties and treat Trump as an outlier also probably sabotaged efforts down ballot.

    With political elites there tends to be absolutely no accountability, and people can have long and prosperous careers even with a long-track record of failure. Under normal circumstances, people would be upset and move on. But given what has just happened, it’s clear that the leadership at various levels of the party needs to be replaced. The party has been bleeding losing elections at all levels since 2009. The fact that Obama won in 2012 made it possible to overlook some of those problems, but there needs to be a major course adjustment. The people who led the party to this place, no longer have any credibility.

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