Despite policies, ‘Working Class Joe’ wins the educated, wealthy

by Brendan Hartnett (class of ‘23)

The 2016 election revealed novel trends shaped by demographics that altered the electoral results significantly compared to past elections. Non-college educated whites voted overwhelmingly for Trump, while Clinton won the college-educated vote. In sharp contrast to previous elections when pro-business Republicans won the vote of wealthier Americans with their promise of tax cuts, Clinton won about 50% of the vote from those above the national median income. Clinton’s gains were offset by her underperformance with Hispanic voters, where Trump outperformed Romney’s 2012 campaign by 8-points. Hispanic voters break from the Democratic Party was particularly visible in Florida, where Trump won 35% of Hispanic voters and 54% of the Cuban vote.

Did the 2020 election produce a continuation of these trends, or did we see different patterns emerge? I examine the relationship between race, income, education and 2020 presidential vote choice. To do this, I employ data from the 2020 Cooperative Election Study (CES), a nationally representative survey of 61,000 American adults. I utilized questions that asked for whom respondents voted, their level of education, their race and their self-reported household income, applying weights to make the sample nationally representative.

Household income was a potentially important, yet relatively understudied factor in the 2020 election. The Trump presidency was, in many ways, good for the pocketbooks of wealthy voters. From deregulation of the economy to massive tax cuts, Trump’s policies were a boon to the wealthiest Americans.. Meanwhile, Biden and the Democrats campaigned on a promise of $2,000 stimulus checks and tax credits to the majority of American households making less than $200,000. If Americans voted solely based on their economic self-interest, lower-income voters would have every reason to choose Biden while high-income voters would likely prefer Trump.

A recent study in The Washington Post concluded that Trump’s victory came primarily from non-college educated whites of middle- and upper-household income levels. They argued that the traditional narrative that Trump’s supporters are primarily working-class whites, though they agree that his supporters had lower-levels of education and were whiter than Clinton and Biden voters. While this study examined levels of household income and education among Trump supporters, I analyze these features, along with race, relative to the two party vote, seeking to examine demographics relative to vote choice in the 2020 Presidential Election.

Household Income, Race and Education Findings

In the CES 2020 survey, about 95% of Black respondents, 75% of Asian respondents, 65% of Hispanic respondents and 40% of white respondents said that they voted for Biden over Trump. When analyzing the aggregate relationship between income, regardless of race, and voting for Biden, there was a statistically significant relationship, by which wealthier respondents were more likely to vote for Biden compared to those at lower incomes.

The first graph shows the percent of respondents, divided by self-reported race, who voted for Biden in the 2020 election across different household income levels. At higher income levels, white respondents’ preferred candidate flipped. While a minority of white voters with household incomes below $150,000 chose Biden, the majority of white voters with higher household incomes chose Biden.

There was no statistically significant relationship between Asian voters’ household income and their support for Biden. It declined slightly between $50,000 and $100,000 but increased again and otherwise remained stable. Similarly, Black voters’ support for Biden declined slightly as income increased, but never dropped below 85%.

Most noticeable, and deviating from the national trend, is the relationship between household income and support for Biden among Hispanic voters. As household income increased, significantly fewer Hispanic voters supported Biden — although support did slightly increase among respondents with household incomes above $200,000. Unlike with other racial/ethnic groups, as Hispanic voters reported higher levels of income they also indicated much more support for Trump.

Of course, the relationship between income and vote choice is complicated by the degree to which income is correlated with education.Thus, the next graph depicts the relationship between household income and support for Biden among those with and without a college degree. Both the 2016 and 2020 elections demonstrated polarization between voters without college degrees — mostly white voters. Over 60% of those with a college education voted for Biden in our survey, regardless of income, compared to under 45% of those without a college degree.

There was no relationship between income and voting for Biden among college educated voters. Across all income levels, support remained mostly unchanged. There was a significant negative relationship between income and support for Biden among those without a college degree. As income increased within this group, voters were less likely to support Biden over Trump. Support for Biden declined rapidly as income increased prior to household incomes of $100,000, after which point support for Biden began to increase significantly.

Income had no effect on support for Biden among white, Black and Asian voters with a college degree. Support among white voters with college degrees remained consistent with about 60% of voters supporting Biden regardless of household income level. Asian voters remained similarly unchanged, with approximately 70% of college-educated Asian voters supporting Biden across household incomes. Black voters with college-degrees continued to support Biden at high levels regardless of income, with 93% voting for Biden.

There was a negative relationship between income and support for Biden among college-educated Hispanic voters. Lower income Hispanic voters with college degrees supported Biden to about the same extent as did Asian voters with college degrees did, but with incomes exceeding $150,000 they began to support Biden as the same level as do white college educated voters. This negative relationship was significant and consistent with other observations regarding Hispanic voters in the 2020 election.

Although the extent to which this relationship existed varies across races, all non-college educated voters of color had a negative relationship between support for Biden and income levels. Least visible, though significant, was the decline among Black voters without college degrees. In total, 95% of Black voters without a college supported Biden, though this decreased as household income increased. Asian voters also experienced a statistically significant decline in support for Biden with increased incomes. About 70% of Asian voters without college degrees supported Biden. Despite the trendline, it was not nearly as significant as the decline among Hispanic voters without college degrees, likely due to the limited sample size of high-income Asians without college degrees.

Most significant was the negative relationship between higher household incomes and voting for Biden among Hispanics without college degrees. As household income increased among this group, support for Biden declined consistently. In total, however, 75% of Hispanic respondents without college degrees voted for Biden.

There was no statistically significant relationship between income level and support for Biden among non-college educated white voters. Approximately 35% of white voters without a college degree supported Biden across income levels.

Conclusion

Overall, household income had a significant, positive correlation with support for Biden in the 2020 Presidential Election. This trend was especially clean among white voters. Black and Asian voters showed no statistically significant relationship between household income and support for Biden. However, Hispanic voters had a negative relationship between household income and voting for Biden. CES data suggest this is largely due to social issues and immigration. Hispanic voters who were anti-immigrant and held conservative social beliefs were significantly more likely to vote for Trump, suggesting Hispanic voters are falling out of touch with progressive social issues pushed by the Democratic Party.

When analyzing the relationship between income and support for Biden, college educated respondent’s aggregate support did not waver. Only among Hispanic voters with college degrees was there a negative relationship between household income and support for Biden. There was a negative relationship between those without a college education and support for Biden. Black, Asian and, most significantly, Hispanic voters without college degrees supported Biden to lesser extents as household income levels increased. Race, thus, serves as a factor needed to effectively analyze the relationship household income and 2020 presidential vote choice. Additionally, due to its significant variation across income levels, the Hispanic vote’s fluctuation and deviation from national trends necessitates further examination.

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