No one can take working class voters for granted anymore

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  • Paul Sracic: Trump took Rust Belt union voters away from Clinton, partly because of trade and partly because he seemed to like being around them more than his opponent did

Paul Sracic is professor and chairman of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Youngstown State University and a former Fulbright scholar in Japan. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Back in September, I wrote an article for CNN Opinion arguing that there was evidence that white, working class Democrats in places like Youngstown, Ohio, were switching their allegiance to the Republican Donald Trump, and that this could prove very dangerous to Hillary Clinton's aspirations for the White House.

Paul Sracic
At the time, I was taken to task by columnists such as Connie Schultz, who argued that I had little data to back up my assertions, and that I was assuming that these working class voters could be duped into believing that Trump was not really a Republican.
I had relied on the actual numbers from the Ohio primary in places like Mahoning (where Youngstown is the county seat) and Trumbull counties. And to demonstrate just how important these voters might be to the Democrats, I also linked to a study that showed how important white working-class union voters were to President Obama's victory in Ohio and Wisconsin in 2012.
    Trump reads letter from Patriot's coach at rally
    Trump reads letter from Patriot's coach at rally


      Trump reads letter from Patriot's coach at rally


    Trump reads letter from Patriot's coach at rally 02:16
    Since so many working-class Democrats in northeast Ohio have a labor background, and since they had clearly crossed over to vote for Trump in the primary, it was clear to me that Clinton's only hope was to steal an equal number of Republican voters from Trump. Perhaps because of the open seat on the Supreme Court, or maybe because the revived Comey investigation reminded Republicans just how much they disliked the Clintons, she did not succeed in this task.
    Trump, however, exceeded even my expectations. According to exit polls from 2012, Obama had won the union vote in Ohio by 20 points. This year, those same exits show Trump ahead by 9 points with these same union households.
    Meanwhile the percentage of the vote that came from union households remained almost exactly the same. In Wisconsin, although Trump lost union households by about 10 points, Romney had lost these same households by a whopping 33 points four years earlier. So again there was a major net gain. In the end, it made all the difference.
    I think that there are two main reasons why these voters were willing to cross over both during the primaries and on Tuesday. The first is obvious and can be summed up in one word: trade.
    Trump "ran the table" in the Rust Belt. He not only won Ohio and Wisconsin, but also Pennsylvania and Michigan. Why? Since 2000, the U.S. has shed more than 5 million manufacturing jobs. To be clear, this job loss was not caused by free trade agreements alone. Technology had a lot to do with it, requiring fewer workers to produce the same amount of goods.
    According to a study published by Yale University, however, the decision made late in the Clinton administration to grant permanent normal trade relations status to China -- not technically a free trade agreement -- may have contributed to more than a third of the net job loss. Although Hillary Clinton also took an anti-trade position, she wasn't nearly as convincing. She had, after all, championed the Trans-Pacific Partnership during her time as secretary of state.
    There was something else, however, that attracted these voters and that wasn't picked up by many analysts. Trump seemed to honestly like being around working-class people. This was one of the key implications of the rallies that Mr. Trump clearly enjoyed.
    This was important to a group of voters who are used to being looked down upon.
    The term that we use to refer to these voters -- working class -- implies not only a lower socio-economic status, but nowadays also a lower cultural status.
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    A great example of what I am talking about occurred on the cold opening of "Saturday Night Live" in early October, where they replayed the first presidential debate. Overall, the skit skewered, in a fairly even-handed manner, both Trump and Clinton. It was easy to overlook the opening comments of Michael Che, who played the moderator, Lester Holt. In character, Che reminded the audience not to clap or cheer, and then said "to the Trump supporters, no shirt, no shoes, no service."
    Notice that only Trump supporters were singled out for derision. Everyone knew that white, working-class voters form the core of Trump's support. It was an inside joke. But imagine if the Che character had tried to stereotype any other group in society in a similar fashion. Notice, also, that the hip, New York audience didn't consider it a cruel putdown -- there were no groans. Is it any wonder that these voters became, in Michael Moore's words, a "human Molotov Cocktail."
    The result was the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States. What does this mean for the United States, the Republican Party, and our overall culture? That remains unclear. What is certain, however, is that no one can take these working-class voters for granted anymore. To me, that's not a bad thing.