‘In September, Cook Political Reports elections guru David Wasserman argued that Democrats would be foolish not to court non-college-educated white voters in 2020. That group may make up 45 percent of the electorate nationwide, he wrote, but it represents a majority of the electorate in key battleground states—Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania—and casts almost half of the ballots in North Carolina.
That set off another round of debate about whether and how the Democrats should “win back” the non-college-educated whites who played a crucial role in delivering the Rust Belt, and ultimately the Electoral College, to Donald Trump in 2016.
Some analysts argue that progressives who urge Democrats to focus on turning out their core base—people of color, unmarried women, and younger voters—are too cavalier about the consequences of continuing to lose less-educated whites. Those progressives in turn worry that the pundits and moderate Dems who obsess over working-class whites rarely define what appealing to those voters would look like in practice. Does it mean shifting the party closer to the center and putting less emphasis on issues that matter to the base, like discriminatory policing, reproductive health care, and LGBTQ rights?
But these debates miss quite a bit of evidence, direct and indirect, that Democrats have already “won back” enough white working-class voters to compete next year. Since the 1980s, Democratic candidates have proven that they can win elections while losing whites without a college degree by a significant margin. Obama won 36 percent of their votes in 2012. Bill Clinton averaged 41 percent in his two victories. And in 2020, the candidate will likely need to win a smaller share of white people without a degree, because that group has long been declining as a share of both the electorate and the broader population. According to Gallup, their share of the population has declined by three percentage points since 2014. And a study released by the Center for American Progress in October projects that next year their share of the electorate will be 2.3 points lower than it was in 2016.
The reality is that the Democratic candidate is unlikely to do as poorly with this group as Hillary Clinton did. In 2016, despite winning the national popular vote by a significant margin, she won just 28 percent of these voters, according to Pew, and that wasn’t enough to deliver Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. According to a data set that combines survey and voter registration data with election results, Clinton lost non-college-educated whites by a 28-point margin in 2016, significantly worse than Obama’s 10-point deficit in 2008 or his 21-point gap in 2012.
A similar analysis looking back further found that Al Gore lost working-class whites by 17 points in 2000, and they went for George W. Bush over John Kerry by 23 points in 2004. Clinton also fared significantly worse among this group in 2016 than Democrats did overall when Republicans crushed them in midterm waves in 2010 (by 23 points) and 2014 (by seventeen points).
There are three reasons to believe that Clinton’s performance with non-college-educated whites in 2016 was an outlier, and that Democrats’ support among this group has already reverted to its longer-term trend line—one of gradual decline that has been offset by demographic shifts in the electorate.’