When pundits claim Donald Trump can win the presidency, they often evoke a fabled political species: “Reagan Democrats.” “Are Reagan Democrats becoming Trump Democrats?” wondered CNN commentator Jeffrey Lord last fall in The American Spectator. “I think there’s a lot of Reagan Democrats waiting to vote for him,” declared MSNBC’s Chris Matthews in January.
This almost certainly isn’t true. The more you examine it, the more far-fetched the claim that Trump can win the presidency by luring vast numbers of “Reagan Democrats” looks.
What is a “Reagan Democrat?” At its most literal, it’s a Northern, white, noncollege-educated Democrat who actually voted for Ronald Reagan. But there aren’t many of them left. The median member of the voting-age population in 1980 was 40—and, according to the CDC, the average white male who was 40 in 1980 lived another 34 years. So the typical blue-collar white man who voted for Reagan in 1980 can’t vote for Trump this fall. He’s dead.* White men born in 1950 die on average at age 66. That’s this year. White working-class men die even earlier. The average white woman who at age 30 voted for Reagan in 1980 will live a bit longer: until 2022. Most white working-class women, however, won’t make it until then.
So when people talk about “Reagan Democrats” today, they don’t mean Democrats who actually voted for Reagan. They mean the people who resemble them demographically: Northern blue-collar whites. But blue-collar whites don’t enjoy the same political significance they did in the 1980s. In the 1988 presidential election, they constituted more than half the voters. This fall, they’ll constitute roughly one-third. A new Center for American Progress report, brought to my attention by The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, notes that in the classic “Reagan Democrat” states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, blue-collar-whites’ share of the electorate will shrink two percentage points between 2012 and 2016 alone.