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U.S. President Donald Trump attends a campaign rally at Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon, Georgia. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

What Trump’s declining popularity among wealthier Americans could mean for midterms

Voters with college degrees and those in the middle and upper class appear to be souring on President Donald Trump, a shift that could hurt Republican candidates in the midterm elections.

Fifty-two percent of voters with household incomes above $50,000 said they disapprove of Trump, compared to 42 percent of all voters who said they approve of the president, according to a recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll.

In 2016, in contrast, exit polls showed voters in all income brackets above $50,000 favored Trump by as much as 4 percent.

Support for the president also appears to have dropped among the voting bloc most closely associated with Trump’s campaign — the white working class.

Sixty-seven percent of white voters without a college degree supported Trump in 2016. Support among that group now stands at 58 percent, according to the PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll.

There’s been an even larger shift among white college graduates. About 49 percent of white college graduates voted for Trump two years ago. Now, 59 percent of them say they disapprove of the job the president is doing.

So what is going on? Three things help explain the shifts.

A vote tally is not an apples to apples comparison with approval rating

Republicans might be more willing to say they disapprove of Trump ahead of the midterms because he is not on the ballot this year. But they would likely still vote for him as the “lesser of two evils” if he is pitted against a Democratic opponent.

But Trump is still playing a significant role in how people vote this election. Forty-four percent of voters say Trump will be a major factor in their vote in the midterms.

Voters in all income brackets and at all education levels said their impression of Trump made them more likely to vote for a Democrat than a Republican in the midterms, at least on the day the survey was conducted in late October. (This split was closest among voters without college education. Forty-two percent of these voters said they’d vote for a Democrat, and 40 percent said they’d vote for a Republican).

Education is becoming more important than income when it comes to what drives voter behavior

“It used to be the case that you could talk about people who are making more money and are better educated as being Republicans. That goes out of the window now,” said Robert Shapiro, a political science professor at Columbia University.

Trump has forced party loyalties to realign. In recent years, people who make more than $50,000 but are less educated — the working class — have begun to worry about losing their standing in the world for racial or economic reasons. Trump tapped into those fears and formed a new kind of Republican coalition.

People who are more educated but have lower incomes do not always identify with that fear because they have the potential to improve their economic situation, said Isabel Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution and author of “The Forgotten Americans: An Economic Agenda for a Divided Nation.”

Suburban women seem to be shifting to the Democrats

Some of those traditional, wealthier and more educated Republicans who stuck by their party in 2016 may be less less supportive of the president two years later.

“I think there is a chunk of well-educated Republicans, especially women, who may rethink whether they want to support Trump,” Sawhill said.

Another PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll from early October showed 52 percent of suburban women said they would vote for a Democrat if the election were held the day the poll was taken, compared to 38 percent who said they would vote Republican.

What about the tax cuts?

Trump’s declining popularity among wealthier Americans is confounding, given that his biggest legislative achievement in office so far was a tax cut that according to the Tax Policy Center disproportionately benefits the wealthy and corporations.

The law has been more popular among people in higher income groups, but the support is still underwhelming. Forty-four percent of voters with incomes of $50,000 or more said the tax cuts made them more likely to vote for a Republican candidate in November, compared to 34 percent of voters with incomes of less than $50,000 who felt the same way, according to the PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll.

Even then, 41 percent of voters with incomes above $50,000 said the tax cuts were more likely to make them vote for a Democrat in the midterms (compared to 44 percent more likely to vote for a Republican). Only 8 percent of Republicans cited taxes and spending as an issue that would affect their vote.

Part of that has to do with the fact that the super wealthy — households with incomes between $308,000 and $733,000 per year — stand the most to gain from the tax cuts, according to the Tax Policy Center. (The PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll did not survey voter opinions for those specifically income brackets. It only surveyed voters with incomes above $50,000 as a whole.)

Super wealthy Americans have historically favored the Republican party, whereas middle class voters are more divided. Another reason: “The economy is good, so people have already forgotten about the tax cuts,” said Stuart Rothenberg, senior editor of Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales. “It’s in their paychecks, but it wasn’t that big of a change — unless you are very wealthy.”

In fact, voters are more willing to give up tax cuts (60 percent) as a way to address the growing national deficit than they are to cut back on entitlement programs such as Medicare (21 percent).

The economy as a voting issue

The economy is not as important a factor in how Americans plan to vote as it has been in past elections.

Twenty percent of respondents in the PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll ranked the economy as the most important issue in their midterm vote — the highest of any other issue. But health care and immigration followed closely, within the margin of error, and the economy ranked lower than it did when unemployment was much higher.

Economic issues rank higher for Republicans (30 percent) than for Democrats (7 percent), which would seem to signal that Republicans could draw a connection between the strength of the economy and their own economic policies over the last two years to turn out their base.

But Republicans are not heavily campaigning on the economy.

Trump’s re-election campaign recently released a new ad urging voters to not “get distracted from the biggest issues, which are jobs and our kids’ future.” But the president has spent significant time on immigration in the final days of the election. Only one in five Republicans ads have mentioned jobs or the economy, USA Today reported, citing data from Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group .

“It does surprise me that the economy isn’t a bigger issue,” Sawhill said. “It both surprises and distresses me because what I’ve argued is that we know how to fix the economy. We don’t know how to fix the culture.”

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