The misrepresentation of Trump’s working-class support began in the primaries. In a widely read March 2016 piece, the writer Thomas Frank, for instance, argued at length that “working-class white people … make up the bulk of Trump’s fan base.” Many journalists found colorful examples of working-class Trump supporters at early campaign rallies. But were those anecdotes an accurate representation of the emerging Trump coalition?
There were good reasons to be skeptical. For one, most 2016 polls didn’t include information about how the people surveyed earned a living, that is, their occupations — the preferred measure of social class among scholars. When journalists wrote that Trump was appealing to working-class voters, they didn’t really know whether Trump voters were construction workers or CEOs.
Moreover, according to what is arguably the next-best measure of class, household income, Trump supporters didn’t look overwhelmingly “working class” during the primaries. To the contrary, many polls showed that Trump supporters were mostly affluent Republicans. For example, a March 2016 NBC survey that we analyzed showed that only a third of Trump supporters had household incomes at or below the national median of about $50,000. Another third made $50,000 to $100,000, and another third made $100,000 or more and that was true even when we limited the analysis to only non-Hispanic whites. If being working class means being in the bottom half of the income distribution, the vast majority of Trump supporters during the primaries were not working class.