Don’t Overstate the Divide Between the Campus and the Working Class

Leftists shouldn’t counterpose working-class voters on the one hand and college-educated voters on the other. Our strategy can combine a working-class economic program with a progressive approach to social and cultural questions.

Supporters cheer during an election night event for Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman on November 9, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen / Getty Images)

Last week, Financial Times columnist Edward Luce published a sharply observed piece on the plight of “America’s shipwrecked working class.” Luce pointed out the gap between the Biden administration’s pro-union, pro-worker rhetoric and some of its major recent policy decisions, including student debt relief and imposing a rail labor agreement that workers rejected. “As a result,” Luce argues, “working classes of all colors have been steadily drifting towards the Republicans. More Americans with household income below $50,000 voted Republican than Democratic last month.” Luce’s analysis echoes claims from some Democrats that their party is too woke to appeal to working people, and from some Republicans that the GOP is, in the words of self-styled “populist” Republican Josh Hawley, “a working-class party now.”

There is no doubt that a significant portion of the Republican base is working-class — particularly among white workers — and that the GOP has made recent inroads among working-class Latino men in particular. It is also true that the data Luce draws on for his claim, the 2022 Fox News Voter Analysis, shows the GOP with a slight edge (49 to 48 percent) over the Democrats among voters with household incomes below $50,000 nationally. That is cause for concern, not just for the Democrats, but for the broad left in this country too.

Still, there is an analytical and political danger in overinterpreting headline data like this. A closer look at the data we have so far from the 2022 midterm elections, including the data that Luce draws upon, reveals a more complicated picture about how the American working class is voting than many of the postelection narratives suggest.

A Redder (and Whiter) Electorate

The “red wave” that nearly all pundits expected to sweep Republicans to a smashing victory failed to materialize. This frustration of GOP electoral hopes has, however, obscured the fact that the 2022 midterm electorate had a distinctly crimson hue to it. Even though Republican candidates lost a string of high-profile races for governorships and US Senate seats, Republican voters turned out at a markedly higher rate than Democrats.

According to the Fox News Voter Analysis Luce draws on, 49 percent of midterm voters were Republicans or Republican leaners, while 43 percent were Democrats or Democratic leaners (the remaining 8 percent were independents). By contrast, the 2020 electorate had a 48 to 47 percent Republican advantage, while the 2018 electorate had a 46 to 43 percent Democratic advantage. This year’s midterms had one of the most Republican electorates in years.

Furthermore, the 2022 electorate wasn’t just redder than those in other recent elections — it was also significantly whiter. According to New York Times analyst Nate Cohn, the white turnout rate exceeded black turnout by the largest margin since 2006. A whiter electorate is, generally speaking, a more Republican electorate, and, as Cohn points out, “the Black population share was below the national average in virtually all of the key districts and Senate contests.”

Considering this drop-off in black voter participation, it’s not too surprising to see Republicans faring better than one might expect among lower-income voters. If anything, it’s noteworthy that GOP candidates like Blake Masters in Arizona or Herschel Walker in Georgia turned in such weak performances, which suggests that even many Republican voters found them too extreme or too unprepared to hold office.

The View From the States

While it’s true that US politics has become thoroughly nationalized in recent years, this does not mean that electoral dynamics play out the same way across all fifty states. Increasing nationalization generates increasing divergence between states where Democrats are strong and those where the GOP holds sway.

As political scientist Jake Grumbach argues in his important new book, Laboratories Against Democracy, one’s “state of residence really matters now in a way it didn’t a generation ago,” from government policies like abortion and collective bargaining rights to patterns of voting behavior. As such, the slight 49 to 48 percent Republican edge among voters with household incomes under $50,000 nationally is not uniformly replicated when we look at the results on a state-by-state basis.

Let’s take a look at the Fox News Voter Analysis data for some of the highest-profile statewide races. In Michigan and Pennsylvania, the Democratic candidates for governor (Gretchen Whitmer and Josh Shapiro, respectively) cruised to victory over their Republican opponents. Whitmer easily defeated Republican Tudor Dixon, one of Donald Trump’s handpicked MAGA candidates, 55 to 44 percent among all Michigan voters. But she did even better among voters with household incomes below $50,000, besting Dixon 58 to 40 percent — a margin of eighteen points.

Whitmer also won among voters with household incomes over $50,000, but by a smaller five-point margin (52 to 47 percent). Shapiro trounced his Republican opponent, the truly unhinged Doug Mastriano, by a roughly sixteen-point margin (57 to 41 percent). There was not a difference in voting patterns by income group in this case; Pennsylvania voters with household incomes on both sides of the $50,000 threshold voted for Shapiro 57 to 41 percent.

In Arizona, lower-income voters carried Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs to a narrow victory over her Republican opponent, Kari Lake. According to the Fox News data, Lake edged out Hobbs by two points (51 to 49 percent) among voters with household incomes of $50,000 or more. These voters accounted for a larger portion of the Arizona electorate than lower-income voters, but Hobbs’s seven-point margin of victory among voters with household incomes below $50,000 was large enough to put her over the top.

The income gap was even larger in the state’s Senate race, which pit incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly against one of Peter Thiel’s dead-eyed minions, Blake Masters. Kelly crushed Masters among lower-income voters by a thirteen-point margin (55 to 42 percent), but they fought to a draw among higher-income voters (49 to 49 percent).

The Kelly-Masters race was very similar to the John Fetterman–Mehmet Oz Senate contest in Pennsylvania, where Fetterman carried lower-income voters by the same 55 to 42 percent score, more than offsetting the razor-thin edge (49 to 48 percent) he had over Oz among voters with household incomes over $50,000.

The Arizona results are all the more remarkable considering the state electorate’s Republican skew. A near-majority (49 percent) of Arizona voters were Republicans, while just 38 percent identified as Democrats (the remaining 13 percent were independents). This is how the results from Florida, where state Republicans led by governor Ron DeSantis thrashed their Democratic rivals, really stand out.

The Florida electorate had the same proportion of Democrats as Arizona, but the state’s GOP has clearly succeeded in winning independent voters over to the Right. Just 7 percent of Florida voters were independents, while 55 percent were Republicans — and they voted consistently for their party up and down the ticket.

DeSantis was reelected governor in a race that was the mirror image of the Shapiro-Mastriano contest in Pennsylvania. DeSantis beat the listless former Republican governor Charlie Crist by roughly 59 to 40 percent, a result that was identically replicated among voters on both sides of the $50,000 household income divide. Crist won just over half of non-white voters (53 percent), but these constituted just about one-third of the electorate. Moreover, DeSantis split the Puerto Rican vote with Crist, a worrisome sign considering the growing size and strength of these voters in Florida state politics.

Data from states where one of the two parties has a clear and consistent partisan advantage often don’t show significant cleavages in voting patterns along the $50,000 household income divide. Support for Democrats and Republicans in both income groups, at least in statewide elections, tends to track closely with the overall results. In Democratic California, incumbent governor Gavin Newsom beat his Republican opponent by 59 to 41 percent, and that margin was replicated identically among voters on both sides of the $50,000 line.

Likewise, in conservative Idaho, where the Republican gubernatorial candidate beat the Democrat 60 to 20 percent (the remaining 20 percent was split among even more right-wing candidates, including the Mormon militiaman Ammon Bundy), there was little difference in voting patterns on either side of the line. And, as we’ve seen above, in many of the states where there was a meaningful income-based cleavage in statewide races, lower-income voters broke for the Democratic candidate and helped them win the election.

The Campus and the Class

Luce ends his column by sketching a future “in which Democrats are the party of the campus with a cultural agenda that alienates a rising share of uneducated whites and non-whites, and Republicans who are skilled at harvesting blue-collar resentment of elites who pay little more than lip service to their needs.” It’s undeniable that the Democratic Party, particularly its superannuated leadership, bears a significant share of responsibility for the parlous state of working-class America. And if the Democrats — to say nothing of the new New Left in this country — don’t offer convincing solutions to working people’s problems, the far right will be all too willing to step into the breach.

The future Luce dreads has a surface plausibility to it. But a note of caution is in order.

For one thing, there will always be a substantial portion of the working class that votes conservative because of cross-cutting cleavages like religion or ethnicity. Moreover, as educational attainment continues to expand, it is increasingly untenable to counterpose “the campus” and the working class. Seventy percent of employed civilians in the United States have had at least some postsecondary education, including the 45 percent who have attained at least a bachelor’s degree. Well-educated workers have been at the leading edge of labor militancy in many sectors, and the most successful current union drive, the campaign to organize Starbucks, is being led by workers with substantial student debt burdens, many of whose leaders are queer.

Finally, as shown above, Democrats still do well among working-class voters in the states and localities where they are strong, and when candidates like John Fetterman — who did not abandon or downplay a progressive “cultural agenda” on abortion, trans rights, and the like — make a particular appeal to them.

The only way forward is to combine a working-class economic program with a progressive approach to social and cultural questions, and to stick to it consistently over time, even where the political terrain is currently inhospitable to us. Democrats should be criticized when they fall short on the former, but neither they nor the Left need to choose between them. We need both the campus and the working class if we want to win.