After Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, pundits struggling to explain the election results came up with a unified theory: it was the support of the working class. Republican leaders later said as much; in 2021, a widely publicized memo discussed how to cement the GOP’s status as the “working class party,” calling it a gift from Trump.

In fact, the evolution of the GOP to be the champion of the working class predates Trump, but there’s no disputing the fact that the Republican Party has been changing, just as the Democratic Party has.

And a new poll conducted by HarrisX for Deseret News shows exactly how much the Democratic Party has changed: Once proudly the representative of the working man and woman, Democrats are now, by a notable margin, the party of choice of the upper class.

The nationally representative poll, conducted April 18-24, reveals a marked preference for the Democratic Party among respondents who self-identified as upper class or upper middle class. 

Fifty-six percent of upper class voters said they most identify with the Democratic Party, compared to 28% who chose the Republican Party. Among respondents who said they are upper middle class, 45% said they were most aligned with Democrats, compared to 30% who side with Republicans.

While the lower class and the “working poor” also have a preference for Democrats over Republicans, the margin of identification with the Democratic Party was more striking among the upper class than any other group. The finding gives teeth to the common cry of conservatives that Democrats are social and cultural “elites.”

It also poses a problem for Democrats who have long relied on working-class Americans to bolster their coalition and whose grand proposals often come with bills they want wealthy Americans to pay.

The forgotten class

In the poll, respondents were asked to identify as one of seven categories: lower class, working poor, working class, lower middle class, middle class, upper middle class or upper class. A majority (39%) made their choice based on income rather than their job (10%) or education (7%), categories which are commonly used by researchers when defining the working class.

They were then asked a series of questions, including which party and which candidates they most identified with. The answers provide snapshots of where each party is headed — and why. Some findings that stand out:

  • Many in the upper class seem tone-deaf about how the rest of the country is faring. Large majorities of the middle class and below, for example, say that the working class is being left behind when it comes to economic development, while 80% of the upper class say that everyone is benefiting equally. That finding, in particular, screams “elite.” Similarly, 62% of the upper class thinks the working class “is in a good position.” Only 30% of the working class agree.
  • Sixty-two percent of the working poor and 59% of the working class say politicians don’t care about the working class. The “forgotten man” that Trump often alluded to in his previous campaigns is still out there — and still feels forgotten. That may be one reason that Trump is still the politician to which most working class respondents relate; he comes in at 48%, 18 percentage points above Ron DeSantis and 15 points above Joe Biden.
  • There is a sharp divide among the lower and upper classes with regard to Democratic politicians. Upper class and upper middle class respondents say they are best represented by Joe Biden (41% and 44% respectively) while Biden’s support drops to 30% and 29% among the working class and lower middle class, respectively. And Bernie Sanders’ support is highest among the lower classes, with a high of 33% among the working poor. Elizabeth Warren also does best among the working poor — 25%.
  • Perhaps most significantly, 74% of upper class respondents want Biden to run again, in stark contrast to large shares of the middle class and lower who don’t want to see Biden run. Sixty-seven percent of the working class and 68% of the lower class don’t want Biden to be their president again. That is significant, and as the Democratic establishment prepares to again present Joe Biden as the solution to America’s problems, it does so at considerable risk.

It’s not just working-class Republicans who feel ignored, but working-class Democrats and independents as well. Collectively, they compromise the forgotten class, and right now, it’s the GOP who is speaking their language.

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Advantage, GOP

Over the past few decades, we’ve been watching America’s political parties seemingly switch identities, not only in their stance on issues like law enforcement and free speech, but in the types of candidates they support.

Barack Obama, for example, styled himself as a warrior for the middle class — one of his campaign slogans in 2012 was “Middle Class First” — but a columnist for The New York Times conceded that elitism was “the charge that Obama can’t shake.” The image wasn’t helped by Obama’s unfortunate characterization of Rust Belt voters as bitter people clinging to guns and religion for solace.

In contrast, Republican J.D. Vance won his U.S. Senate seat in 2022 in part by capitalizing on his Rust Belt childhood described in his memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.” In one interview, Vance referred to the poorest people of Appalachia as “these people, my people.” Unlike Obama’s comment, the remark was not a political mistake.

Political scientists Noam Lupu and Nicholas Carnes say that white working-class support for GOP presidential candidates has been gradually rising since 1996, and that “the biggest single-year increase in the white working class’s share of GOP voters came in 2012, when Mitt Romney was the party’s nominee.”

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Of course, it’s not just the white working class that is trending Republican; Trump enjoyed a deep base of support from Hispanic voters, which helped him carry Florida in 2020.

Meanwhile, the share of Democrats with college degrees — historically, an achievement associated with white-collar jobs and higher incomes — has markedly increased in recent decades, according to Pew Research Center.

In 1996, voters who had not attended college represented 51% of Democrat voters, compared to 28% in 2020. “The share of Democratic voters with at least a four-year degree has increased from 22% to 41%,” Pew said. Meanwhile college attendance among Republicans remained roughly the same. “As a result,” in 2020, “college graduates make up a much larger share of Democratic than Republican voters (41% vs. 30%).”

But, as Lupu told me, a college education is only one factor in what makes up the working class, and that matters less now than it has in the past. The working class is made up of plumbers with college degrees, hair stylists with GEDs and small business owners with high school diplomas. It’s a category that’s hard to pin down; less so, the upper class, which tends to have higher education as well as higher incomes.

And with colleges and universities showing an alarming lack of ideological diversity in their faculty, and fewer working class and middle class families able to afford tuition, higher ed is likely going to keep turning out Democratic-leaning denizens of the upper class.

Democrats can try to recapture the working class by promoting candidates like Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman who, despite having a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard, has a penchant for tattoos and hoodies. And to be fair, working-man advocate Vance has an Ivy League law degree. But the upwardly mobile bend of the Democratic Party is undeniable at this point, as the Deseret/HarrisX data shows — and when it comes to the working class, the GOP has the advantage right now.