In the Obama era, we also saw that race was not a critical driver of white swing votes. Barack Obama won more support among white men in 2008, including the working class, than any Democrat since 1980.
Mr. Obama’s support among these whites was at its peak in 2008 after the stock market crash. At the depths of the Great Recession that followed, blue-collar white men experienced the most job losses.
Their support began hemorrhaging after Mr. Obama chose early in his presidency — when congressional Democrats could have overcome Republican obstruction — to fight for health care reform instead of a “new New Deal.”
By 2016, Mr. Trump personified the vote against the status quo, one still not working out for them. A post-campaign study comparing the George W. Bush coalition in 2000 to the Trump coalition in 2016 found that Mr. Trump particularly improved in areas hurt most by competition from Chinese imports, from the bygone brick and tile industry of Mason City, Iowa, to the flagging furniture plants of Hickory, N.C. The study concluded that, had the import competition from China been half as large, Mrs. Clinton would have won key swing states and the presidency with them.
This argument does not ignore bigotry. Racism appeared more concentrated among Trump voters. One poll found that four in 10 Trump supporters said blacks were more “lazy” than whites, compared with one-quarter of Clinton or John Kasich supporters.
But traits are not motives and don’t necessarily decide votes. Consider that four in 10 liberal Democrats, the largest share of any group, said in 2011 that they would hold a Mormon candidate’s faith against him or her. It would be silly to argue that, therefore, liberals voted for Mr. Obama because Mitt Romney was Mormon.
Yet the Trump coalition continues to be branded as white backlash. The stereotyping forgets that many Trump supporters held a progressive outlook. Mr. Trump won nearly one in four voters who wanted the next president to follow more liberal policies.
Democrats need only recall Mr. Clinton to understand how voters can support someone in spite of his faults. Mr. Clinton won re-election in 1996 despite a majority, including about a third of liberal voters, saying he was not honest. His approval rating reached the highest point of his presidency during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It wasn’t that Democrats and independents endorsed Mr. Clinton’s behavior. They opposed Republicans more.
Two decades later, we are reminded again that a vote for a presidential candidate is not a vote for every aspect of him. We can look for the worst in our opponents, but that doesn’t always explain how they got the best of us.