Varying Political Behavior of Voters and Non-Voters in the White Working Class

There is often talk of two prominent generalities in politics that don’t always comport with one another:

  1. The more people that vote in elections, the better change Democrats have of winning.
  2. Republicans have an untapped potential in mobilizing the “missing white voter”–a part of the general population that’s not always part of the electorate in full force.

On the surface, these two very general ideas both have some merit. The first point makes sense for several reasons. While party affiliation data among voters shows a more even distribution between Democrats and Republicans, the same data but for all Americans reveals a more Democratic bent to the wider U.S. public. In other words, the U.S. public as whole is more Democratic than the portion of the public that participates in elections. Additionally, groups that turn out to vote at lower rates–Hispanics, Asians, and other non-white/non-black races–lean more toward the Democratic party. If more people vote in elections, the presence of these minority groups in the electorate would have to rise and thus create a greater Democratic tilt.

The second point regarding the missing white voter is much more speculative, but does have some credence. After all, whites make up a majority of the U.S. population, and an even larger slice Americans who vote: 74 percent of voters in the 2012 election were white, though that share has continuously dropped in each general election since 1988. Whites identify as and vote Republican at much higher rates than the rest of the population. Many white voters still don’t vote in elections however, and that fact is greater for non-college educated whites who have an even more Republican character than college educated ones do. Thus, the GOP could benefit from tapping into this large portion of the population that doesn’t vote at especially high rates but that could presumably lean more toward voting Republican. This could have materialized to some extent in the 2016 election in helping elect Donald Trump.

It’s worth mentioning another thing regarding the first point: the low-turnout minority groups aren’t that large, and by themselves couldn’t make up the difference seen between the public and electorate partisanship distributions. The first idea must involve a story about white voters outside the electorate trending more Democratic in order to be true, placing it at odds with the second idea.

That begs the following question: if more white voters entered into the electorate, would that cause a shift to the political left or right? Available evidence seems to point to a likely shift leftward for the electorate if this were to occur.

For starters, Nate Cohn used voter file data to conclude that missing white voters from the 2012 election were more likely to be Democratic than white voters who did turn out, either by their registration or the primary in which they participated. More interestingly–and more to the point of the intersection of the missing white voter and the white working class voter–Bradley Spahn recently tweeted out a very interesting tidbit of information on this subject.

Related to very interesting research based on merging vote preference data from the American National Election Studies with turnout data from voter files, Spahn pointed out the following: regarding the 2012 election, whites without a college degree who did not turn out to vote preferred Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by a 59-41 margin. For whites without a college degree who did participate in the election, they preferred Romney by a 57-43 margin. The white working class–as defined as whites without a college degree–that was missing from the electorate preferred Democrats by a 2 to 1 margin. Thus, if white non-college citizens entered the electorate at a higher rate, Spahn’s data suggests it would advantage Democrats, not Republicans. Considering non-college whites are one of the GOP’s most reliable demographic bases, this finding sheds very interesting and surprising light on the portion of the American public who’s not voting in elections.

I wanted to expand on that finding a bit with available data. While I don’t have access to voter file data/vote validation data, I can look at the 2012 ANES to see how the white working class voters and non-voters compare on dimensions other than vote choice. That’s what I show below using four variables measuring partisanship and political ideology. Again, I define the white working class as white respondents in the ANES survey whose educational level stands at anything below having earned a college degree.


The first dimension represented above is partisanship on a seven-point scale, ranging from “Strong Democrat” to “Strong Republican” classifications. One aspect that immediately stands out is how much more non-voters identify as Independent without any lean toward either of the major parties; they’re more Independent by 17.5 percentage points. Relative to the white working class who voted in the 2012 election, non-voters are also less likely to identify as strong partisans, but the disparity is greater for Republican identification. Non-voters identify as Strong Republicans 16.3 percentage points less than voters do, but identify as Strong Democrats only 6.5 percentage points less.


The second dimension above builds on the first: this partisanship indicator groups Independents who lean toward a party, strong partisans, and weak partisans in that party, shrinking seven groups down to three. Once again, the white working class citizens who did not turn out in the 2012 election are much more Independent than those who did. Similarly, while non-voters are less attached to both parties compared to voters, they’re much less relatively attached to Republicans than they are to Democrats.


The third dimension turns to another aspect of political behavior–a liberal to conservative continuum of ideology. This variable allows people to identify with seven different ideological groups, from extremely liberal to extremely conservative. Non-voters are 16.6 percentage points more likely to see themselves as ideologically moderate than voter are. This accords with the two prior dimensions in producing an image of non-voters as possessing weaker political ties–an unsurprising finding given that they opted not to vote in the 2012 election. However, there exists a more liberal tilt to the working class white ideological structure for non-voters than the same for voters. For example, non-voters are 10.3 percentage points less likely to see themselves as “Conservative” than voters do. Every point on this spectrum–outside of the “Moderate” classification–shows a dropoff in ideological ties going from voters to non-voters except for one point: the “Slightly Liberal” self-described ideology. While 8.8 percent of voters see themselves as “Slightly Liberal,” 13.3 percent of non-voters do.


Finally, this fourth dimension above more adequately captures what the third one was trying to say: among the white working class, non-voters are much less ideologically conservative than voters are. Grouping the three ideological groups for liberal and conservative from the prior seven-point scale, the above graph shows that voters and non-voters are not all that different in terms of liberal ideology. However, non-voters are 15.5 percentage points less conservative than voters are among working class whites. Notably, non-voters prove more left-leaning on ideological dimensions than they do on the partisanship dimensions described beforehand.

All in all, this limited analysis using ANES data lends more credence to what Spahn’s tweeted out data suggested: the portion of the white working class that doesn’t vote is more Democratic and liberal than the working class whites who do vote. In other words, adding more working class whites to the electoral fold would not necessarily benefit Republicans.


Varying Political Behavior of Voters and Non-Voters in the White Working Class

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