Hispanic voters in America are “literally cascading into the Republican Party,” Donald Trump said last week, according to Fox News. Speaking on a call with Turning Point USA, a group that advocates for conservative values on American educational campuses, the former U.S. president also claimed the Republicans were “becoming the party of the worker and the party of just about everybody, frankly.” For all his characteristic hyperbole, Trump was alluding to something real: As The New York Times reports, based on the latest round of the regular survey it conducts in collaboration with Siena College, “Republicans appear to be making new inroads among nonwhite and working-class voters—perhaps especially Hispanic voters.” In fact, for the first time in the survey series, “Democrats had a larger share of support among white college graduates than among nonwhite voters.” It’s an especially remarkable finding, given that the Democratic Party had “won more than 70 percent of nonwhite voters while losing among white college graduates” in congressional elections just six years ago. The new data has reinforced an emerging view among political analysts at mainstream U.S. media outlets that—despite the traditionally common sense that the Republicans disproportionately represent the white and the wealthy, while the Democrats represent the non-white and the non-wealthy—the Republican Party is now becoming a “multi-racial, working-class” coalition. Is that really what’s happening?
Matt Grossmann is a professor of political science at Michigan State University, where he directs the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research. Grossmann thinks it’s true that the polarization of America’s white voters along educational lines is clear and likely to continue—and could plausibly spread to non-white voters, particularly Hispanics, over time. But the broader picture he sees is more complicated than the narrative of the Republican Party becoming a “multi-racial, working-class” coalition suggests. After all, the vast majority of non-whites still aren’t voting for Republican candidates, and some of the non–college-educated whites who are voting for them have high incomes, complicating the question of their “class.” Neither is there clear evidence on whether non-whites without college degrees are genuinely moving to the right. But there is evidence, Grossmann says, that more and more people across the American political spectrum are developing their party identities in relation to how they perceive the cultural influence of elite institutions—universities, the media, large corporations—that they associate with progressive values and progressive politics.
Graham Vyse: How do you see support for America’s two political parties shifting along educational lines?
Matt Grossmann: If you’re a white, college-educated voter in America today—or you live somewhere in the U.S. where you’re surrounded by white, college-educated voters—you’re likely to be trending toward the Democratic Party. The opposite’s true of white voters without college degrees. These trends predate Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency in 2016, but he certainly accelerated them. It used to be that white, college-educated voters were more likely to vote Republican.
Talking about voters in terms of their education is different from talking about them in terms of their broader “class,” which incorporates their education, income, and occupational status. It’s actually voters with high incomes and low levels of formal education who’re moving right; voters with higher levels of formal education but lower incomes—your quintessential graduate students—are moving left.
Education-based divisions among minority voters in the U.S. are still way more uncertain than some tend to assume. I looked at polling from before the 2020 election, and even when you have adequate samples of Hispanic-American, African-American, and Asian-American voters—and you’re able to differentiate across college-education levels—you don’t see consistent trends in which those voters split by education level. You just don’t see the clear education-based divide among them that you see among white voters. Now, there may have been a shift in 2020, but that hasn’t been sufficiently confirmed by survey work. There was a clear shift between 2016 and 2020 in the overall Hispanic vote, though, which moved toward Republicans while the rest of the country was moving toward the Democrats.
Vyse: What explains that?
Grossmann: Part of what we’re seeing is ideological sorting. White voters have sorted ideologically over a long time—there are virtually no white liberal Republicans or white conservative Democrats anymore—but the same thing hasn’t happened to the same degree among Hispanic voters. Many conservative Hispanic voters remain Democrats, for example. Yet in 2020, Hispanic voters were more likely to support Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary and Donald Trump in the general election than they were in 2016. Hispanics who’re more liberal were trending in a more liberal direction and Hispanics who’re more conservative were trending in a more conservative direction. This behavior seems to have been tied to the country of origin of the voter’s family: If they’d moved to the U.S. from a country with a left-leaning government, they were more likely to be trending conservative.
As Hispanics have moved toward the Republican Party, plenty have tried to explain the shift. I’m skeptical about explanations that have to do with Republicans’ political mobilization, or campaigns, or advertising, because we’ve seen this shift in places where those interventions didn’t happen.
Another explanation has to do with how Hispanic voters tend to respond to incumbent presidents: It seems that, in presidential elections prior to 2020, Hispanic voters tended to move toward the incumbent. But that year, they increased in their support for Republicans even where the candidates weren’t incumbents. The 2020 campaign also centered on different issues than the 2016 campaign did. Whereas immigration was extremely important in 2016, subjects like the pandemic, Covid restrictions, the economy, and crime were elevated in 2020. This may have contributed to Hispanic voters’ decision-making.
Part of what we’re seeing is ideological sorting. White voters have sorted ideologically over a long time—there are virtually no white liberal Republicans or white conservative Democrats anymore—but the same thing hasn’t happened to the same degree among Hispanic voters.
Political divisions by education, which are visible around the world, are often related to the growing importance of cultural issues. In America, you still see a lot of high-income voters in the Republican Party, and you still see a lot of high-income politicians and other elites who are more concerned with economic than cultural issues. But there’s also a disconnect between elites and non-elites—within both parties: Republican donors are way to the right of their party’s voter base on the issue of taxes; Democratic donors are way to the left of their party’s voter base on the issues of abortion and guns. In other countries, these different interests would distribute themselves across a number of different political parties, but in the U.S., there are only two major parties, so the vast majority of voters end up in one or the other.
Vyse: Talk of “multiracial” political coalitions can obscure important differences between the subgroups in those coalitions. How does the current voting behavior of Hispanics differ from that of Asians or African-Americans?
Grossmann: To the extent that we can tell—looking at how different areas of the country are trending relative to the national trend—we saw some relative movement toward the Republicans among both African-Americans and Asians in 2020, but much less movement than you saw among, say, Hispanics in South Texas and South Florida. At the individual level, among African-American and Asian voters, you do see some movement toward the Republicans in polls, but again, it’s super-small. It’s hard to tell a consistent story about it.
Bear in mind, 90 percent of Black voters support Democratic candidates. That includes Black voters who are very conservative—conservative on economic issues, conservative on social issues, even conservative in their identity. There’s a bond between Black voters and the Democratic Party that’s strong enough to overcome these ideological dynamics. Democrats rely on a belief among many minority voters that, regardless of their individual views, their ethnic groups are better off with Democrats in power. There’s obviously a long history of Democrats intervening on behalf of civil rights and Republicans appealing to racist voters, which is something Black voters talk about in explaining their Democratic support. Conservative Black voters will say they’re still Democrats because they associate the Republicans with racism.
This same dynamic exists among Hispanics and Asians, though people in those groups are less tied to the Democrats than Black voters are. More upwardly mobile Asian-American groups have been more likely to affiliate with Republicans, and Asian-American subgroups that haven’t done as well economically have been more likely to affiliate with Democrats.
Vyse: Is increased support from Hispanics changing the Republican Party at all?
Grossmann: Republicans aren’t really talking more positively about immigrants, as the Republican National Committee’s autopsy report after the 2012 election urged them to do. To some extent, the report’s detractors were right; the Republicans didn’t need more positive rhetoric about immigrants to appeal to more Hispanics—though it’s possible the party would be doing even better with them if it’d changed its approach.
Republicans aren’t really talking more positively about immigrants, as the Republican National Committee’s autopsy report after the 2012 election urged them to do. To some extent, the report’s detractors were right; the Republicans didn’t need more positive rhetoric about immigrants to appeal to more Hispanics—though it’s possible the party would be doing even better with them if it’d changed its approach.
Vyse: How did Democrats end up as the party of college-educated voters—or at least college-educated white voters—and how did that transition change the party?
Grossmann: First of all, college-educated voters used to represent a smaller ratio of the population in the U.S., but they’ve come to represent a larger ratio—and a more important constituency in the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, white, non–college-educated voters, who used to represent a huge ratio of the Democratic vote, are going in the other direction. Notably, the Republican Party has retained about the same percentage of white, college-educated voters, but the composition of the Democratic Party has changed dramatically.
Meanwhile, social institutions like universities, the media, and nonprofits—which aren’t officially allied with the Democrats, even if they’ve historically leaned a little to the left—are now adopting the worldview of white, liberal, college-educated voters much more emphatically and openly than they have in the past. Big businesses are still donating to Republican candidates, but many of those businesses are gaining liberal reputations or at least losing their conservative reputations. We don’t have evidence that Americans completely buy into the idea of “woke capitalism”—that all big businesses have become progressive—though they do increasingly see media and technology companies this way. My sense is, that’s more about perceptions of the media, which, in a lot of Americans’ minds now, includes technology companies.
Vyse: Would you say that working-class voters—maybe especially white working-class voters—have also started recoiling from the Democrats?
Grossmann: Part of it was ideological sorting, as we discussed it, and, yes, a reaction to liberal governance. Voters were reacting to new Democratic administrations in elections in 1994 and 2010, and a lot of Americans who supported Republicans in those campaigns stuck with the party. Still, I’d be hesitant to lean too much on that explanation, as we’re talking about a worldwide phenomenon, which most people associate with the importance of cultural issues over economic issues.
The Democratic Party used to be very reliant on the idea that they represented lower-income people while Republicans represented rich people. In fact, if you asked Americans what they liked about Democrats, the number one thing they would say, for decades, was that the Democrats were the party of the working class or the middle class. The number-one thing Americans said they disliked about Republicans was that the Republicans were the party of the rich or big business. An important dimension of Democrats’ image is fading, because their party is increasingly the home of white, college-educated voters.
Socioeconomic questions, including questions of economic redistribution, used to be the central political question in America and in wealthy countries around the world. Now the center of politics is expanded to include cultural issues, and that change has contributed to the current alignment of politics based on education—as college-educated voters are more likely to have liberal cultural attitudes and non–college-educated voters are more likely to have conservative cultural attitudes.
Social institutions like universities, the media, and nonprofits—which aren’t officially allied with the Democrats, even if they’ve historically leaned a little to the left—are now adopting the worldview of white, liberal, college-educated voters much more emphatically and openly than they have in the past.
Vyse: Many progressives in America can’t understand how Hispanic voters could have moved toward the Republican Party in the era of Donald Trump, given what he’s said about immigrants from Mexico and minorities in general. What are those progressives missing?
Grossmann: Well, it’s important to acknowledge that conservatives are reacting to liberal trends in the culture. Things really are moving in a liberal direction in many ways; the country is diversifying and becoming more accepting of what used to be thought of as alternative lifestyles. It’s also becoming less religious and less white. Now, it might be difficult for progressives to understand how a Hispanic voter could worry about the country diversifying or becoming less culturally conservative—yet some conservative Hispanic voters indeed worry about them. Those sentiments simply aren’t off-limits for Hispanic people. It’s also worth noting that 2020 was the first year of the pandemic, and conservatives weren’t making up the fact that the government’s response involved telling people what to do—change their behavior in public, wear masks, close their businesses. And Hispanic small-business owners may well have responded negatively to that.
Vyse: Republican politicians, including Donald Trump, are clearly eager to advance the idea that they’re part of a multi-racial, working-class coalition. They’re promoting it. Back in 2016, Trump famously said, “I love the poorly educated.” Democratic elites, meanwhile, seem uncomfortable with being seen as an upscale party of the college-educated. What’s your sense of how Democrats are responding to recent shifts in these two political coalitions?
Grossmann: They’re clearly aware that, to the extent that Americans have historically disliked Republicans, it’s because of the perception that they’re the party of the rich. Democrats see that the only major Republican policy achievements of the Trump administration was something the United States also saw under the Reagan and Bush administrations—tax cuts disproportionately favoring businesses and the wealthy. The Democratic Party certainly isn’t going to cede class politics to the Republican Party. At the same time, Democrats aren’t going to avoid talking about guns and abortion following recent Supreme Court decisions or highlighting Trump’s anti-immigration views. In other words, they’re not going to avoid a focus on cultural issues, which is part of what’s driving political realignment in America by education level. Democrats view the advance of cultural liberalism as a moral issue; they believe civil rights are at stake, human rights are at stake, and democracy is at stake. They don’t see the advance of cultural liberalism as an issue to compromise on.
Vyse: How do you imagine the educational polarization of the two parties evolving?
Grossmann: There certainly doesn’t seem to be any change on the horizon in the trends among white voters. In fact, those trends have a lot more room to grow. Democrats will continue to lose ground among non–college-educated white voters and gain support among college-educated white voters. I do think there’s a chance we will see a similar dynamic among minority voters, even if there isn’t enough evidence to confirm that yet. As younger white and Hispanic voters age—having, in some cases, delayed getting married, having children, and owning a home—some ratio of them may well end up moving toward the Republicans.