Political party operatives and the television pundits have proclaimed two simultaneous shifts during this election cycle: the shift of white, working-class, blue-collar voters from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, especially in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio; and the shift of nonsocial conservative, white-collar, business-class voters from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party in places like Georgia and Arizona and North Carolina.
Many union and manufacturing workers in places like Michigan who traditionally vote Democratic are drawn toward Donald Trump, but concurrently, many moderate and liberal Republicans in places like Long Island, New York, are drawn away from Trump. But is this simply an anomaly of 2016? Is it simply a result of the Hillary-Clinton-versus-Trump dynamic inherent to 2016, but not other candidates or election years? And do the effects simply cancel each other out? If 250,000 union workers in Michigan who voted for President Barack Obama vote for Trump, and 250,000 white suburban folks in Michigan who voted for 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney vote against Trump, it would be a wash of sorts. A similar effect could play out in places like Pennsylvania, where more traditionally Democratic areas like Scranton and Pittsburgh could tilt more Republican than usual, and more traditionally Republican areas like the Philadelphia suburbs could tilt more Democratic than usual.
The effect is marred, though, because many of these so-called “Reagan Democrats” who Trump says are leaving the Democratic Party to vote for him probably have not voted for a Democrat for president in years. Yes, they may still be registered Democrats, but for all intents and purposes, most have likely voted for Republicans John McCain and Romney instead of Obama. So the argument coming from the Trump campaign that he’s bringing new voters into the fold is true but disingenuous, because it may be a net negative or a net neutral, given that many voters will leave the Republican Party because of Trump.
Whether this type of shift is permanent for the foreseeable future, this potential shift should not worry people. These sorts of shifts happen from time to time. Consider the shift of African Americans from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party between the end of the Civil War and the enactment of civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Consider the shift of southern whites from the Democratic Party to Republican Party between the enactment of civil rights legislation in the 1960s and the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. These shifts are normal parts of the political process, as voters realign their party preferences to match the changing times.
I do not believe the realignment — whether permanent or for this election only — will be as pronounced as that of the aforementioned shifts of African Americans and southern Democrats. Rather, I believe it will be much more on the margins. A suburban county of Philadelphia that Republican Romney carried 51-48 percent may now go 53-46 for Democrat Clinton. Or a blue-collar county outside of Detroit lively with autoworkers that Democrat Obama carried 65-33 may now go only 53-46 for Democrat Clinton. Will this redraw the electoral map? It has the potential to, but I believe much of the state shifts from one party to the other will be offset by other shifts. So, for instance, Michigan or Ohio might just barely go Republican this November, but Georgia and Arizona and North Carolina might just barely go Democratic as well.
In any case, we seem to be seeing a realignment of the coalitions that comprise each party. Each party may be losing voters to the other, which is to be feared, but each party is gaining new voters from the other, which is to be embraced. Will this be the case? And how pronounced will it be? Only time will tell.
First-year Ph.D. student in American politics