College-educated whites, not blue-collar Trump backers, powered Washington state’s voter surge

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During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s populist message resonated with many white, blue-collar voters in Washington, as it did elsewhere in the country.

Even so, new census data show that there was no tidal wave in voter turnout among the state’s working-class whites.

It’s true that, compared with the 2012 presidential contest that re-elected President Barack Obama, white Washingtonians turned out in force last November. But the data show that this surge was mainly from white voters with college degrees – not blue-collar folks who make up Trump’s signature demographic.

In Washington, about 2.8 million non-Hispanic whites voted in the 2016 election. That represents 72 percent of the white population that is eligible to vote, a 4 percentage point bump from the 2012 election.

With the increase, Washington in 2016 had the fourth-highest turnout of white voters among the 50 states, up from 13th in 2012.

And indeed, some of that increase came from white voters without a college degree, a group Trump won nationally by an overwhelming margin over Democrat Hillary Clinton. The turnout in Washington for this group was 63 percent, which is 2 percentage points higher than in 2012. That pencils out to an increase of 72,000 white voters without a college education.

That certainly helped Trump do well in Washington – for a Republican, at least. Even though Clinton handily won the state, Trump flipped five Western Washington counties from blue to red. All are counties with a high percentage of blue-collar white voters: Clallam, Grays Harbor, Pacific, Mason and Cowlitz

But the main reason that white voter turnout went up in 2016 was because of folks with a college education. Turnout among this demographic jumped from 81 percent in 2012 to 87 percent last November. That 6-point bump represents an additional 165,000 white voters with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

That bump could reflect the Seattle area’s many college-educated liberals, who turned out in force to vote for Clinton – or against Trump. In King County, Clinton won 72 percent of the vote, outperforming Barack Obama’s 69 percent in 2012.

Washington’s increase in white voter turnout doesn’t parallel a larger trend. Nationally, there was very little difference in the voting percentage for whites from the 2012 election, regardless of the level of education.

The Census Bureau defines voter turnout as the share of adult U.S. citizens who cast ballots. In total, 66 percent of Washingtonians voted in 2016, up less than one percentage point from 2012.

One factor in Clinton’s loss in November was that blacks did not turn out to vote for her as they had for Barack Obama. Black voter turnout in the U.S. sank from 66 percent in 2012 to 59 percent in 2016.

Something similar happened in Washington, too – even as the state’s white vote shot up. Just 78,000 blacks cast ballots here in November. That’s 43 percent of eligible black voters, a 6-point drop from four years earlier. In fact, among the 32 states that have a black population of at least 100,000, Washington’s turnout last November was the lowest.

Surprisingly, the gap in voter turnout between the sexes grew dramatically in the state last year. Women were up: 71 percent of those eligible voted, an increase of 4 percentage points from 2012. Meanwhile, men were down by 3 points, turning out at just 61 percent.

That created a 10-point difference between Washington men and women – the widest gap between the sexes of any state.

Oregon, interestingly, was one of only two states (along with Massachusetts) where a higher percentage of men than women voted in the 2016 election.