Even casual observers of the presidential election understood that Donald J. Trump had a powerful connection with white, working-class voters.
But as the stunned expressions of television commentators and Hillary Clinton supporters suggested Tuesday night, much of the country did not grasp the depth and potency of a bond that helped turn huge swaths of the industrial Midwest red and deliver the most remarkable upset in modern American politics.
The day after the election, sociologists, pollsters, and political operatives were wrestling with some big questions about what drove the surge in support — and how it caught so many people off guard.
“It’s pretty clear that there wasn’t a sufficient understanding . . . about the depth of the resentment,” said Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard University and coauthor of “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.”
Skocpol got her first inkling of Trump’s appeal to white, working-class voters when he began raising questions about President Obama’s birthplace in television interviews in 2011. She was interviewing Tea Party members for her book at the time, and her subjects took obvious pleasure in Trump’s troublemaking.
“People sort of rolled their eyes; they knew he was a showman,” she said. “But they also appreciated that he was highlighting this attack on Obama and all that he stands for.”
Skocpol said Obama, a one-time law school professor who became the country’s first black president, posed a fundamental threat to the social standing of blue-collar, white men who once held a prime place in the American pecking order.
The power of this social dislocation was evident to some, Skocpol said, but it too often was overlooked by journalists who were bent on finding an economic explanation for Trump’s appeal to working people.
“I saw one media story after another, one television story after another, where people were standing in front of hulks of [closed] factories in western Pennsylvania,” she said. Those factories “went the way of the dodo a very long time ago.”
Arlie Russell Hochschild, a University of California, Berkeley, sociologist and author of “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right,” agreed that diminished social standing plays a vital role.
Many of the men she interviewed in southwestern Louisiana between 2011 and 2016 for her book were in search of “honor,” she said, and often found it in their roles as fathers or church deacons. But that was in part, Hochschild said, because they no longer had jobs that were a source of pride.
In that way, she suggested, economic dislocation has, in fact, been an important fuel for white, working-class revolt. And in the region she studied — where Filipino immigrants are taking jobs as pipe fitters at the local chemical firm and Mexican immigrants are building “man camps” where the pipe fitters lived — Trump’s call for building a wall on the Mexican border has real resonance.
Yes, some of the jobs are being taken by machines, Hochschild said, but “it’s hard to get mad at a machine.”
Some of the nuance of the story might have been lost in the media coverage. But Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, said it is not fair to say the press “missed the story.”
“I read good, long pieces in several newspapers . . . on this left-behind generation of the white working class that was supporting Trump,” he said. “But it comes on a Sunday, you read it, and then it’s gone. It’s not top-of-mind, the way the day-to-day punditry and the latest Trump hot take is.”
It is difficult, he said, to inject this kind of reporting into the “media echo chamber.”
The constant stream of polls, obsessively crunched on websites such as fivethirtyeight.com and HuffPost Pollster, was very much in that echo chamber, though.
And while the national surveys came pretty close to predicting the final result — Clinton appears to have won the popular vote, as forecast, even as she lost the Electoral College — the polls got it wrong in key battleground states with large amounts of white, working-class voters.
“That is where things really went off the rails for a lot of pollsters,” said Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group in Boston.
Koczela said it is not yet clear what, precisely, led polling firms astray. But the fact that the surveys were consistently wrong in one direction — giving Clinton the edge in these states — provides him with some confidence that the problem can be diagnosed.
Even if pollsters struggle to figure out what went wrong, political operatives will not be likely to underestimate the power of white, working-class voters going forward. Democratic operatives across the country are already talking about how to win more of this bloc.
But Richard Socarides, a political strategist and former adviser in Bill Clinton’s White House, said the onus will now be on Trump to deliver for these voters. “He made a lot of promises he has to deliver on,” Socarides said.
Skocpol, the Harvard sociologist, said if Trump follows through on key parts of his agenda — gutting the Affordable Care Act, which many blue-collar voters depend upon for health coverage, or reworking trade deals — it could make life more difficult for his supporters in places such as Michigan or Wisconsin.
And if things go wrong, she said, history suggests Trump will lash out and blame immigrants or minorities for the problems afflicting his base. That could prove effective in shoring up their support, she said, but it is likely to sow deeper divisions in the country.
“God help us,” she said.
David Scharfenberg can be reached at email@example.com.