Do Populist Candidates Appeal to Affluent Voters?

(Chart: 24/7 Wall Street, Federal Reserve data)

(Chart: 24/7 Wall Street, Federal Reserve data)

The 2016 presidential primary elections — now essentially halfway over — have placed income and wealth inequality right at the forefront of America’s political discourse.

The entire Bernie Sander platform rips the gains of America’s rich at the expense of low- and moderate-income people and advocates for comprehensive economic reforms that aim to narrow the nation’s vast economic divides. And billionaire Donald Trump, in his stab at a populist pitch, regularly blasts the impact of globalization on average American workers.

Mainstream media analysts have generally categorized white working class voters as Sanders and Trump supporters. Neither candidate, the conventional punditry suggests, would seem to have an appeal to more affluent voters.

But this assessment, our new analysis of voting patterns indicates, may not be accurate.

We looked at voting results from the most affluent county in each of the 2016 primary states where we now have data. Candidates traditionally pay considerable attention to counties like these since voter turnout, the research shows, strongly correlates with household family income.

These most affluent counties all have higher household incomes than the national median. Residents in the wealthiest among them — Virginia’s Loudon County — have more than double the income of the nation’s typical household. The full list:

How do the presidential candidates fare in these higher-income counties? Using CNN exit polling, we’ve tabulated results from the Republican and Democratic contests for most of the states where primary voting has taken place. No county data exists for the Minnesota and Maine caucuses, and Kansas and Alaska offer congressional district instead of county voting breakdowns.

On the Republican side, Donald Trump took most of these most affluent counties.

Republican Candidate        Victories
Donald Trump (12) Beaufort County, SC; Blaine County, ID; Madison County, MS; St. Johns County, FL; Shelby County, AL; St. Charles County, MO; Livingston County, MI; Honolulu County, HI; Rockingham County, NH; Kendall County, IL; Nantucket, MA; Forsyth, GA
Ted Cruz (6) Canadian County, OK; Wake County, NC; Ascension Parish, LA; Elko County, NV; Oldham County, KY; Rockwall, TX
John Kasich (2) Chittenden County, VT; Delaware County, OH
Marco Rubio – campaign suspended (4) Williamson County, TN; Benton County, AR; Dallas County, IA; Loudoun County, VA

On the Democratic side, we see a much closer race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Democratic Candidate        Victories
Hillary Clinton (13) Benton County, AR; Beaufort County, SC; Madison County, MS; St. Johns County, FL; Shelby County AL; Dallas County, IA; Rockwall County, TX; Williamson County, TN; Delaware County, OH; Loudoun County, VA; Wake County, NC; Ascension Parish, LA; Forsyth County, GA
Bernie Sanders (10) Chittenden County, VT; Sarpy County NE; St. Charles County, MO; Elko County, NV; Livingston County, MI; Rockingham County, NH; Kendall County, IL; Nantucket County, MA; Douglas County, CO; Canadian County, OK

Sanders scored electoral success with affluent voters in geographic areas as diverse as Nevada, Michigan, and Massachusetts. His anti-economic inequality message has resonated with a diverse array of voters. In Michigan, CNN exit polling shows, Sanders actually tied Clinton with voters earning over $100,000 and won the state’s highest-income county.

Donald Trump’s strong showing in the wealthy suburbs also suggests that his voter base goes beyond the working-class base that the standard media narrative so emphasizes. Trump’s message, riddled with anti-immigrant and offensive language, has found an audience with wealthy voters from Nantucket County in Massachusetts to Honolulu County in Hawaii.

What can we take from these results? On the one hand, the results suggest that a broad coalition of Americans — including many Americans of wealth and privilege — stands ready to support a pro-worker and pro-equality economic agenda that will uplift all Americans.

On the other hand, the results also suggest that ethnic and racial insensitivity and worse runs all the way up America’s economic ladder.

Marc Priester is a research and program associate at the Institute for Policy Studies.