Over the last several decades, the country has seen two swing groups move in opposite directions: Working-class whites exiting the Democratic Party, and more affluent, educated voters leaving the GOP. For either side, the key to winning a presidential election has been to hold onto its own swing voters while consolidating gains among the other guy’s. Thanks to the economy, Barack Obama more than accomplished that last night.
Think of 2000 as a baseline—the year the parties were in rough parity on the presidential level. Four years later, George W. Bush roughly held his own among college graduates (the group leaving the GOP), but nudged up three points among working-class voters (the group migrating toward the GOP). Obama accomplished something similar last night, except more pronounced.* Relative to 2000, he more than held his own among working-class voters (+6 among high school grads, +10 among those with “some college”). And he improved his take of educated voters even more sharply (+8 among college grads, +10 among post-graduates). . . .
among all whites without college degrees (40 percent of the electorate), Obama lost by a whopping 18 points. But among whites making $50,000 per year or less (a quarter of the electorate), he lost by a mere 4 points.
Which is to say, the big divide last night wasn’t between working-class whites (i.e., whites without college degrees) and educated whites. It was between working-class whites who are relatively well off, and working-class whites who aren’t. The aforementioned numbers imply that Obama struggled hugely among working-class whites making more than $50,000 per year, but did well among those making less than that. The upshot was that, despite losing the white working-class by wide margins nationally, Obama came reasonably close in the economically depressed states of the industrial Midwest (down only 8 in Ohio and Indiana, actually up 6 in Michigan). Hence the electoral college landslide.