The Battle for the White Working Class is Just Beginning

by Stan Greenberg

There is no more oft-repeated statistic than the fact that Barack Obama won just 39 percent of white voters in 2012. “This much is undisputed,” Ron Brownstein declared in 2012: “President Obama lost white voters by a larger margin than any winning presidential candidate in U.S. history.”

Obama was noticeably weak with a number of groups, but particularly white blue collar and non-college white men – which Brownstein describes as “once the brawny backbone of the New Deal-era Democratic coalition.” Mitt Romney ran as well as Dwight Eisenhower and George H. W. Bush among these key groups yet did not get close to the White House.

With Democrats clearly in trouble with the white working class, both parties have moved to the same conclusion: Democrats have a structural advantage in the presidential years and in winning the White House because the new “rising American electorate” (RAE) votes in large numbers in those elections but is at a marked disadvantage in winning and sustaining control of the House and Senate, where the smaller states and most rural parts of the country have their biggest say, and in elections during the off-years when white working class voters play a bigger role in the outcome.

This basic conclusion about the white working class figures in the debates going on among conservatives and the official Republican Party today as well as in the debates among the Democrats. Many conservatives believe that there were up to six million mostly working class, religiously faithful voters who stayed home because the plutocratic Mitt Romney did not engage them. Some suggest that Republicans need only increase turnout among these white voters to be fully competitive on a national level. Others believe that Republicans must run better among minorities, particularly Hispanics, but both groups agree that Obama ran disastrously with whites, particularly with white working class voters.

There Are Three Reasons the Common Wisdom is Wrong

Democrats have not challenged the assertion that Barack Obama and Democratic
candidates fared poorly with white working class voters nor have they examined the vision of the white working class that is being employed to reach this conclusion. This article will show that the common wisdom which holds that white working class voters were a disaster for Obama and the Democrats and are no longer central to Democratic electoral strategy is wrong on three counts.

  • First, this common wisdom is wrong about how much trouble Democrats are in among white working class voters.
  • Second, this common wisdom misses the regionally limited character of white working class support for the Republican Party and underestimates the scale of its future problems with these voters.
  • Third, this common wisdom is wrong about the basic character and future of the American working class.

The geography of the white working class vote

Regarding the first issue, the key fact is that the elevated white working class vote for Mitt Romney, and increasingly for national Republicans, is largely a product of white voters in the South, Border South and Rocky Mountain states – and not of the white working class in the rest of the country. Nate Cohn highlighted this reality with his headline, “The GOP Has Problems with White Voters, Too.”

Combining over 13,000 interviews that Democracy Corps conducted in 2012 showed that Obama received a pathetic 25 percent of the white non-college vote in the South and just 33 percent in the Mountain West; Romney, in contrast, was getting around two-thirds of this vote.

The scale of the rejection of President Obama in the Southern and Western base of the Republican Party obscured the fact that Obama was far more competitive among white voters elsewhere in the country. In Democracy Corps’ combined interviews for 2012, Obama won white non-college voters in New England by 51 to 42 percent, tied Romney in the West North Central states by 47 to 46 percent and trailed by only 7 points in the Mid-Atlantic by 44 to 51 percent. At the same time Obama received 41 percent of the vote of white non-college voters in the East North Central and Pacific Coast states where he trailed Romney by just over 10 points.

While Obama’s performance in the Midwest was probably slightly weaker than it might have otherwise been because of the weak economic recovery and stagnant incomes in the region, white working class voters in the great middle of the country and coasts were still very competitive for Obama in 2012. They thus remain central to Democratic priorities in any strategy for 2014 and 2016.

The Shrinking Regional Base of the GOP in White Working Class America

Regarding the second issue – the dynamics and trends in the Republican Party – the future is not promising for the GOP’s ability to maintain its hold on the white working class vote outside its geographic core. The GOP is encamped in the race conscious South and Evangelical and religiously observant Appalachian Valley and Mountain West where its candidates and representatives seek to wage a conservative counter-revolution against emerging trends and associated values in the rest of the country.

We are all aware that the GOP is aligned with the oldest, most rural, most religiously observant, married white voters while it is shunned by younger voters and Millennials, metropolitan area residents, the secular and religious mainstream, foreign born immigrants and all racial minorities.

In consequence, the Republican Party is now at its lowest standing with the public and has the smallest number of people identifying with the party in the history of polling. Less than a quarter of the country identifies with the party – and its problems go beyond the demographic trends.

Racial identity has deep roots in the South — confirmed by a stunning recent study on the persistence of conservative politics in the slave-holding counties of the Black Belt — and that racial identity continues to shape responses under the Obama Presidency, as Jonathan Chait has underscored. But Evangelicals are also concentrated in Deep South and Border States, along with the Mountain West where Mormons are also important. This overlapping conservative racial and religious perspective in the South and Mountain West, has led the GOP to fervently join the culture war to re-assert endangered values. America’s civil rights, women’s rights, immigrant and gay rights revolutions have fundamentally changed the country, but the values they uphold are still deeply contested because of the Republican Party’s regional conservative base.

With race and religion the dominant dynamic in their regional base, virtually all other demographic divides within the GOP get suppressed. Whites in the South – men and women, college and non-college, young and old – all gave President Obama very similar and low percentages of the vote. The rest of the country, in contrast, is divided by more healthy racial, gender, class and generational gaps. But, there is no gender or generation gap in the white working class in the Republican South. Nor is there a class-based education gap either. White college-educated men and white Millenials alike across the South and Mountain West gave just 30 percent of their votes to Obama – right at the norm for the Republican heartland.

In short, national trends and rules do not seem to apply in the Republican regions, as reflected in the story of white working class defection from the Democrats since 2000. During the 2000 election between Gore and Bush, white non-college voters in the South identified Republican by 10 points. That margin doubled to 21 points in the polarizing 2004 Iraq war/gay marriage election and held steady in 2008 when Obama was elected. It then surged to a 33 point advantage for Republicans in 2012 elections. By then, only 29 percent of white non-college voters in the South identified with the Democratic Party. In the Mountain West, the Republican advantage surged to 35 percent during the Obama administration, while Democratic support sunk to only 29 percent of white workers in the western part of the Republican base region.

But the key fact is that there is no comparable trend in white working class votes elsewhere in the country. In all of the other regions, the Republicans’ advantage among white working class voters over time has either been relatively stable, bounced around or even trended Democratic. At the end of the day, the Democrats had a 3 point advantage among white workers in the East and Republicans enjoyed just a 5 point advantage in the whole of the Midwest in 2012.

Democratic party identification margin in presidential years:

Chart showing net PID

There are cracks in the Republicans regional base led by the modest defection of college-educated white women in the South who gave Obama 6 points more than the college men and college-educated women in the Mountain West who gave Obama 12 points more support than the men. These gender disparities have probably played a role in the growing Democratic support in the growing metropolitan centers at the fringe of the South in northern Virginia, in Atlanta and Tampa in the Deep South, and in Denver in the heart of the Mountain West.

These are all places where there is broader receptivity to racial diversity, immigration, multi-culturalism, the pluralism of family types and independence of women. These female voters notice when the party not only nominates a Tea Party extremist, but also when the party denies that women face a wage gap or fight to limit contraceptive coverage or to stop state legalization of same sex marriages.

The Key to Winning White Working Class Support is Understanding Who They Are

The third issue, the mistaken common wisdom about the basic characteristics of the white working class, misses the profound changes that have occurred in the working class itself. At the time I and a number of other Democrats took up the political project of bringing back Reagan Democrats and white working class voters to the Democratic Party (a project that culminated in the election of Bill Clinton) nearly 27 percent of employment was in blue color jobs like manufacturing, construction and mining, while professional or business
services and health care employment only contributed about 10 percent each. Employment in the production of goods dominated blue collar employment, followed by employment in transportation and moving materials. That is why the Republican-voting white, blue collar, unionized UAW workers were so important to the Clinton project to renew the Democratic Party “from the bottom-up.”

Even today much of the literature on the white working class focuses on the imagery of “Joe six-pack” or “Joe the plumber.” In his excellent book, The White Working Class Today, however, Andrew Levison focuses on the actual occupational characteristics of “working class” employment – jobs that involve routine and repetitive tasks, require limited skills, are closely supervised and offer no autonomy during working hours – and concludes that half of white working men and almost 40 percent of white working women today are “basically [in] working class jobs.”

This valid conclusion leads some democrats to fall into the trap of thinking that “the white working class” is still composed of traditional white blue-collar men working in factories or large, unionized construction projects. As Levison rightly points out, however, a lot of blue collar work today takes place in small groups rather than in factory settings and a vast number of blue collar construction workers are self-employed contractors rather than unionized employees.

In fact, many traditional areas of “old fashioned” blue-collar employment have sharply declined, led by goods-producing occupations. Manufacturing accounts for only 8.9 percent of employment today. At the same time, there is a surge of employment in health care, leisure and hospitality and lower level professional and business services.13

If you want to get a sense of the center of the modern working class, look at the jobs that form the heart of the economy.

Chart showing highest employment occupations

Nearly all of the people in these jobs have not seen a raise in years; moreover, the maids and housekeepers, waitresses and hostesses, cooks and dishwashers, counter attendants and ticket takers, janitors and hairdressers and child care workers earn about $400 a week on average and rarely receive the health and retirement benefits presumed during the industrial era. Female participation equals male participation now and mothers are the sole or primary providers in four in ten households.

These white working class voters are a potential part of a new and enlarged Democratic base. The problem is not that they can’t be won to the Democratic coalition but that the mistaken common wisdom about them has led all too many Democrats to declare defeat before they even try.

But the facts are clear. The extreme pro-Republican tilt of the white working class today is disproportionately based on voters in the South and Mountain West. The GOP’s platform is increasingly divorced from the values and needs of white working class voters in other areas of the country and the “new” white working class has profound social and economic needs that the GOP cannot and will not address.

In short, the battle for the white working class is not a “lost cause” for progressives and Democrats. On the contrary, it is a battle that has only just begun.

Footnotes appear in the pdf “print” version.

Stan Greenberg is the CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a polling and consulting firm, and co-founder (with James Carville and Bob Shrum) of Democracy Corps, a non-profit organization which produces left-leaning political strategy.

An edited version of this article appears in the June issue of The Washington Monthly.