It has been widely reported that Donald Trump’s strong appeal to elements of the white working class (especially males) endangers Republican support among women, minorities and the more-educated in the current presidential campaign. What has had less attention is that these shifts, if they persist after this election, endanger long-term Republican control of Congress and state legislatures.
The less-educated tend to vote less often: they are less reliable. That’s one of the most fundamental realities of voting behavior, not only in the United States, but across the world wherever free elections are held. Now, it may be that enthusiasm for Trump will elevate turnout among this sector in this election; we will know more about that in the weeks after November 8.
But Trump has been demonizing not only Hillary and the Democrats. He’s also viciously undercut such fellow Republicans as Paul Ryan, if they do not give him full-throated support. Thus the GOP and its established leadership cannot count on the same level of support from what has become their popular base. Only by enthroning Trump himself as their leader could they hope to continue to mobilize that level of support in future elections. And given the level of antagonism between Trump and most party leaders, such a coronation seems exceedingly unlikely in the wake of a decisive Trump defeat this November.
For most of its history, the GOP has been the party of business and the middle class, while the working class has been Democratic at least since the New Deal. That has meant that Republicans had a built-in turnout advantage, especially in non-presidential years, when turnout would plunge among the less-educated. We could see that pattern as recently as the off-year elections of 2010 and 2014, when Republican sweeps put them in control of both houses of Congress and the majority of state legislatures and governorships.
This Republican success also built on the drift of working class voters away from the Democrats and toward the Republicans, beginning in the late 1960s. This was a reaction, on one hand, to the civil rights movement’s threat to the security of the white working class, just at the time when traditional industries like steel and coal were declining and organized labor’s clout was being undercut.
Trump is driving off a substantial chunk of that traditional Republican constituency, especially the well-educated, and especially women.
Labor organization could partly counteract the tendency of less-educated voters to stay home, or to vote Republican. Labour union decline facilitated the move of working class voters toward the Republicans. Case in point: West Virginia, which went from hard-core Democrat from the 1930s to the 1960s, to hard core Republican today. The result was the addition of major parts of the white working class to the Republican coalition, while its traditional business and middle class foundation remained intact.
Trump, however, is driving off a substantial chunk of that traditional Republican constituency, especially the well-educated, and especially women. For example, he is losing Pennsylvania, and it is largely because of well-educated suburban voters around Philadelphia, where the Democrats are gaining.
The Republican dilemma after their 2016 defeat will be this: either maintain the enthusiasm of their new working class base by making themselves the permanent party of Trump (thereby sacrificing a substantial portion of their traditional middle class base), or reassert the traditional character of the party and marginalize the Trump working class voters. What they cannot any longer do is to keep on pursuing pro-business policies while drawing on the class and cultural resentments of the white working class.
The result will be that the GOP will lose its turnout edge in non-presidential elections. Indeed, the Democrats, with their increased support among the well-educated, will take over that edge. For the first time in decades, Democrats will be in a position to win off-year elections.
Combine that with a likely ongoing lock on the Electoral College in presidential elections, and we could be looking at a long-term Democratic era, not seen since the New Deal.
The Trump phenomenon will live on, much to the chagrin of Republicans.