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Professional Losers: The Transformation of the Democratic Electorate

By Matthew Thomas

Between 2008 and 2020, the share of working-class voters in the Democratic presidential primary shrank, while the share of affluent voters grew substantially.

Over the past few years, the press has reported with interest on the fact that the Democratic Party’s popularity seems to be dwindling among the working class, but booming with affluent professionals. Most coverage has focused on how the voting patterns of these groups are changing in the context of general elections. Some coverage has also examined how the party’s coalition is shifting in the context of Democratic primaries, but it tends to be narrower in focus and heavier on anecdotes. For greater insight into these trends, let us consider how the class composition of the Democratic presidential primary electorate shifted between 2008 and 2020.

Such an exercise requires a degree of caution. Many states use the unrepresentative caucus format to conduct their primaries, states may change their primary format from one cycle to another, and a candidate may secure the nomination before each state has voted. For these reasons, it can be challenging to detect changes in the nature of the electorate over time. To avoid these problems, let’s take a look at primary results only in states that used the election format in both 2008 and 2020 during a competitive phase of the nomination process.

There are 16 such states, and in both years, they accounted for about half of all votes cast in the Democratic presidential primary. In almost all of them, the trend is the same: poor and working-class voters are shrinking as a share of the electorate, while the share of middle-class and affluent voters is growing. As we dive into the details, recall that the median household income (MHI) in the US is about $68,000/year.

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