Even in an election year with more than the usual degree of surprise, a few familiar patterns have returned—such as the quadrennial flurry of media stories about the supposedly pivotal role of the white working class in deciding the presidency. Some of these pieces are colorfully anecdotal tours through blue-collar communities; others are more systematic and data-driven. However, their tone and conclusions tend to converge on a single theme: the Democrats need to watch out, because the Republicans are cutting into their traditional base.
We'll probably hear this caution more often than usual in 2016, since Donald Trump appears to hold disproportionate appeal among whites without bachelor's degrees compared to other voting blocs in the American population. (I have some objections to accepting a methodological definition that classifies the richest person in the United States as "working class," but that's a discussion for another time.) It's also quite possible that Hillary Clinton is not exactly beloved by this set of voters—especially the men among them—further opening the door for Trump to win a substantial chunk of their support.
According to the polls so far, however, any newfound advantage that Trump provides the Republican Party among the "white working class" is more than balanced out by his weaknesses among the racial minorities and college-educated whites who constitute the remainder of the electorate. It is likely that both phenomena reflect the same underlying set of candidate attributes: Trump's outspoken nationalism, racially charged rhetoric, and idiosyncratic persona could be expected to attract some types of voters while repelling others.
Such tradeoffs are common in politics. Party tents can only stretch so far; the actions that welcome one group into an electoral coalition can often alienate the members of another. When the Democratic Party moved leftward on civil rights in the mid-20th century, it won a greater share of the minority vote but lost popularity in the South. The white southerners who migrated into the GOP then helped to establish social conservatism as a foundational Republican creed, which in turn propelled culturally liberal northern metropolitans toward the Democrats. Politicians often seek to raise issues or develop messages that might cause segments of the opposition to defect from their habitual partisan alignment, but such maneuvers can be risky and are seldom entirely costless.
Close study of the changing preferences of a single demographic group or stratum of the electorate can yield insights and illuminate developments that otherwise go unappreciated—such as the dramatic pro-Democratic trend among Asian-American voters since the 1990s. The evolution of the parties' popular coalitions over time holds significant implications for a number of important political phenomena, from voter mobilization to elite policymaking.
But these analyses are often conducted in the context of a campaign horse race, where any change in the prevailing partisanship (or relative size) of a particular voting bloc primarily receives attention because of its potential impact on the outcome of an imminent election. Examinations of a single category of voters may incorrectly assume that no countervailing trends exist among other citizens, potentially leading to misguided conclusions. For example, the growing electoral strength and partisan loyalty of Latino voters is surely an asset to Democratic candidates, holding all else equal—but if it is accompanied by an erosion in the party's popularity among racially conservative or immigration-skeptical whites, it will hardly provide Democrats with a decisive long-term advantage. (The much-hyped increasing demographic diversity of the American electorate notably did not prevent Republicans from winning more seats in Congress in 2014 than at any point since the 1920s.)
One of the reasons why we hear so much about the white working class every four years is that many of the battleground states in presidential elections are located in a nearly contiguous band between Pennsylvania and Iowa that roughly corresponds to the so-called Rust Belt. It is easy for party leaders and media figures alike to envision the pivotal voters in these pivotal states as retired steelworkers or out-of-work machinists, and to thus conclude that the election will turn on these Americans' specific attitudes and concerns. Despite popular perceptions, however, these states also contain plenty of professional-class residents who may be just as alienated by the Trump campaign as their blue-collar neighbors are attracted to it.
Moreover, the logic of partisan tradeoffs can apply to the electoral college as well. If Trump's rhetoric on race and immigration inspires a large enough popular backlash among minority voters to deliver the ethnically diverse states of Florida, Nevada, Colorado, and Virginia to the Democratic ticket this November, then he could carry Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Hampshire, and the northern district in Maine and still lose the presidency. Yes, it's a problem for Hillary Clinton if she loses Johnstown by a landslide—but it's a bigger problem for Trump if he gets blown out in Miami.
In 1996, the consultants running Bill Clinton's reelection campaign successfully convinced reporters that they had identified the decisive voting bloc in the race: white suburban women with children, whom they dubbed "soccer moms." Those of us old enough to remember that election can recall numerous media stories about this narrow supposed demographic. It is easy—and cognitively appealing—to focus the analysis of a large and heterogeneous electorate on a single "crucial" subpopulation. But everyone's vote counts the same, and restricting our field of vision to the voters shifting in one partisan direction may prevent us from noticing an equal or larger group moving the other way.