Is Seattle headed for a middle-class voter revolt?

Seattle was an island of deep blue in an ocean of red on Election Day, leading many to assume that the city is immune to the shift that happened in the rest of the country. Let’s put that to the test.

There has been a tremendous amount of Monday-morning quarterbacking about what happened with the vote for President on November 8th, with lots of speculation and finger-pointing about why Trump won the electoral college.  But twelve days out, with most of the votes tabulated and exit-poll data analyzed, the picture is clearer.

Let’s start with the big picture: Clinton won the popular vote by taking the big urban centers, but Trump won the electoral college by having a broader coverage of states and by flipping many of the “swing” states.


Overall, voter turnout suffered from a lack of enthusiasm. Voting turnout was down, with Trump holding close to Romney’s total votes in 2012 and Clinton well off Obama’s 2012 numbers.


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The people who voted for Trump didn’t all do so for the same reason. For some, it was about Supreme Court nominations — especially among white Christians.



A majority of whites voted Trump, while minorities overwhelmingly preferred Clinton. It’s safe to say that white nationalists, a group of unknown size, overwhelmingly preferred Trump. Even white women as a whole favored Trump over Clinton. There is some data to suggest racial attitudes are highly correlated with this, though I would caution that correlation is not the same thing as causation.


But largely those are side issues. In exit polls, 39% of the voters said that what mattered most to them was change.  Clinton campaigned on “more of the same,” and Trump campaigned on change. The people who wanted change voted in huge numbers for Trump.


For many voters,  change took precedence over all other considerations. 59% of voters viewed Trump unfavorably, yet of the 18% who disliked both candidates, half of them voted for Trump anyway.


60% of the voters thought Trump was unqualified to serve. 18% of them voted for him anyway.


29% weren’t bothered by Trump’s treatment of women, and they almost all voted for Trump. Of the 70% that were bothered by it, almost thirty percent put that aside and voted for him anyway. (yes, that makes some of them either misogynist or misogynist-adjacent)


In other words: a lot of people were willing to overlook all of Trump’s well-known shortcomings and faults, mostly because they really wanted change.

So what kind of change were the voters looking for? Over two thirds are dissatisfied or angry about the federal government.


Almost two thirds think the country is going in the wrong direction. Likewise for their assessment of the national economy.



More than two thirds think their financial condition is the same or worse than it was four years ago – and the ones who are doing worse flocked to Trump. Even a quarter of the ones who are doing better today voted for him.


Underlying that was a major split between urban and rural areas. As mentioned earlier, Clinton locked up the urban areas. Everything else went for Trump.


The smaller and more rural, the more likely it was to vote Trump — and the bigger the red shift.



This is actually a long-term trend: Republicans are not making gains in urban centers, but are gaining traction everywhere else at the expense of Democrats.



This leads to one of the big questions: why did the non-urban areas go for Trump so strongly, when the economy has been steadily improving for several years and unemployment is so low nationally?  Because almost all of the economic improvement has been in the cities. In terms of employment, the largest metropolitan areas have surpassed their pre-recession highs, but the smallest towns and rural areas have barely improved upon their mid-recession low. Much of America has indeed been left behind.


This shows up very clearly in the incomes of white men with no college degree.


The election has been characterized as a “working class revolt,” but it’s not nearly that simple. Middle and upper class voted for Trump — and the middle class, while hollowing out, is still over 50% of the voters. Clinton decidedly took the working class, but


… working class voters as a whole shifted Republican, while the middle class shifted in the opposite direction.


And just to close the book on some of the other social issue pet theories, while there are certainly one-issue voters out there, none of them really explain Trump’s win, because there is significant demographic evidence that Americans’ views on a wide variety of topics are shifting more liberal. That includes immigration (though there is a partisan divide), same-sex marriage, abortion, healthcare, global warming, and gun background checks. And three states just voted to legalize marijuana.

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To sum up: middle class and working class voters outside of the largest urban areas felt left behind economically, and voted for change as a priority over other considerations. Trump promised them change; Clinton promised them more of the same. They went with Trump.

Lots of smart, articulate people have since written about why that happened, and how the media missed it. Some of the best pieces are here, here, here and here. This piece is also pretty eloquent.

Many people are now singing one of the left’s favorite refrains: rural working class voters keep voting against their own best interests. And many would agree that Trump’s policies won’t help them. But there is a new notion being tossed around in behavioral economics circles, called Prospect Theory, that offers an explanation: when people have recently suffered a loss, they are more likely to take bigger risks in order to try to recoup their losses. Trump spoke to that directly.

Trump also tapped into the rise of populism, which is happening not just in the United States but around the world: the UK and western Europe, China, Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Columbia, Venezuela, and so many more. What made this U.S. election cycle interesting was that there were populist movements on both the far-left and the far-right, with Bernie Sanders, a self-declared “democratic socialist,” taking up the opposite end of the spectrum from Trump. The rise of populism speaks to the global phenomenon of restructured economies increasing economic stratification and magnifying inequities. People are being left behind everywhere and they are no longer watching passively as it happens to them.

And that brings us to the question of the day: could Seattle see a similar sort of middle-class populist uprising?  On the surface, it seems like a silly question; Seattle was a deep-blue corner of the map on election day, going 87% for Clinton.


Seattle’s demographics have both similarities and differences to the country’s as a whole. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 demographic numbers, the median age in Seattle is 36.0 years, versus 37.4 nationally; Seattle has fewer children, fewer elderly, and more millennials. In terms of race, 69.9% of Seattleites are white, versus 73.8% nationally. Our city has fewer blacks (7.3%, and declining) compared to the rest of the country (12.6%),  more Asians (14.2% vs. 5.0%), fewer Hispanics/Latinx’s (6.4% vs. 16.9%), and about the same number of native Americans. The numbers are different for the greater Seattle metropolitan area, including Bellevue, Tacoma, Everett and smaller towns; Pew has more data on that, though it’s no secret that Washington State’s demographics are very different the further you get away from Seattle.

On the economic data, Seattle has a higher percentage of adults who are employed (72.4% vs. 63.9% nationally), more professional jobs and industry, slightly less manufacturing, but a very similar representation for many other sectors. Incomes are skewed up: fewer people make under $50,000 per year, about the same number (around 43-44%) make between $50,000 and $150,000, and more people make more than $50,000. Seattle has fewer children living in poverty, about the same number of adults, and more over age 65.

On the 2014 housing data, the local vacancy rate is lower (6.6% vs. 12.5%), there are far more renters in Seattle (53.8% vs. 35.6% nationally), and housing is more expensive locally — though curiously, a smaller percentage of Seattle renters are rent-burdened (i.e. they spend more than 30% of their income on rent).

renters cost burdened by income level

Anecdotally, we all know the housing situation is worse in Seattle now than it was two years ago when these numbers were generated, but there aren’t newer national numbers to compare them to.

The census social data tells us that Seattle has a far higher percentage of adults over 25 with a college degree (65% vs. 37.2%).

Put together, this paints a picture of a city with some built-in protection from a Trump effect: it’s about as white, but it’s better educated. On the other hand, it skews a little richer: less working class, more upper class, which favors Trump. Also with fewer African Americans and more Latinx and Asian, that skews it even a bit more towards Trump — those groups favored Clinton, but by smaller margins than African Americans.

But the bigger factor is that Washington’s economy is doing pretty well right now — and especially in the Seattle metro region. We see working class folks locally who are hurting — and who have embraced socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant’s populist movement, which mirrors Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Sawant has championed a number of measures intended to help the working class, or as she likes to say “ordinary workers.” Those include the $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, tenant protections including capping move-in fees, and “secure scheduling” for hourly workers. Those are all great things, but their impact is almost entirely on the working class; middle-class workers won’t get much benefit beyond what they already have.  By Pew’s calculation, Seattle is 23% working class, 52.6% middle class, and 26.2% upper class.

Seattle is a city of compassionate people who are supportive of the city’s extensive (and growing) measures to take care of our most vulnerable residents: not only working class people, but our homeless population, immigrant communities, LGBTQ communities, and those with mental health and substance abuse issues. They have repeatedly voted to impose taxes on themselves to pay for  important city services.

To the extent they have complained, Seattle’s middle and upper class residents have been more up in arms about livability issues: transportation, crime and public safety, the impacts of the growing homeless population on neighborhoods, the SODO Arena, and zoning issues. Some of them are also not a fan of Sawant’s efforts to organize anti-Trump protests (and even the Stranger is of mixed views on this).

But what happens if Seattle’s economy turns south? The city has enjoyed a prolonged recovery, beyond the typical economic cycle. Nationally, this has been attributed to the depth of the recession and the slow pace of recovery. But Seattle’s recession wasn’t nearly as deep, and thanks to the tech industry (particularly Amazon) it has recovered much faster.

US employment growth


Seattle’s boom can’t last forever, and in fact the city’s economic forecasters believe a cooling-off is imminent — though some argue that it still has legs. The construction boom seems to be ending. Boeing and Microsoft have been laying off people. Amazon’s hiring boom might also be nearing its end.

The housing pressures are taking their toll as well. The Seattle Times recently reported that renters using Section 8 vouchers are fleeing Seattle for the suburbs.


Then there’s the potential effect of Trump’s policies, which might result in cuts in social services. Or worse, a cut in all federal funding due to Seattle’s “sanctuary city” status.  Even within Washington state, resentment of “Seattle liberals” is on the rise, and even blue Grays Harbor county turned red this year — meaning that if the feds abandon Seattle, Olympia might not rescue it.

To sum up: in Seattle we have a mostly-white (69.9%), majority middle class (52.6%) population that is doing okay economically but is having trouble keeping up with the skyrocketing cost of living here. City government is raising taxes and fees to pay for programs to help the working class, the poor, immigrants, and the homeless. Due to the city’s principled stand on undocumented immigrants, the budget for transportation and social services might get slashed. The economy is overdue to cool off. And pockets of people are already grumbling about livability issues.

To the extent that things keep rolling along in Seattle, the political landscape is unlikely to change much. But  a “perfect storm” of economic and fiscal bad news might drive a middle-class revolt against the city leaders.  Some of those might move into Sawant’s camp, if she adjusts her message to appeal more to the middle class. But if a populist leader on the right emerges, he or she might quickly establish a potent counter-movement just as Trump did on the national level — and for many of the same reasons (as awful as some of them are). The higher level of education among Seattleites would provide some resistance to a candidate as repulsive as Trump (or Bill Bryant), but a moderate/centrist Democrat might be embraced.

The move to district-based Council positions complicates this picture, as the districts have different demographics. Perhaps the most vulnerable to a shift to the right are Council members Bagshaw and O’Brien, who represent whiter, richer neighborhoods; a shift from “progressive values” to economic issues as the main campaign issue could signal an election upset for incumbents. Harrell, Herbold and Johnson also had close elections last year, so small shifts in voter sentiment could make a difference. Even Sawant faced serious competition in her election race. And next year the two city-wide Council positions, currently held by Council members Burgess and Gonzalez, come up for re-election along with the Mayor, and we will get to see how city-wide demographics and concerns play out.

Today it’s hard to argue that Seattle’s middle class is being economically left behind; there’s comfort in that and short-term safety for the progressive gains we’ve made in our city. But rather than going back into our progressive bubble, we should take a lesson from the national election and remember not to take our middle class neighbors for granted — even when we disagree with them. If they start slipping behind economically, we need to build a bigger tent to bring them along. And as we claw our way through a more fiscally perilous 2017, we should be taking care that we don’t adopt policies that push them in the wrong direction.





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