What ‘abandoning’ means (and what it doesn’t)

The opinion page of the Wall Street Journal featured this James Taranto piece yesterday, asking, “Why would Democrats advertise that they’re giving up on the ‘white working class’?”

It’s been a common refrain from the right all week. Fox News pushed the same line, as did former Bush speechwriter William McGurn.

The line is terribly misleading, so it’s worth setting the record straight.

Referencing a report from the Center for American Progress’ John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, Tom Edsall wrote a piece for the New York Times on likely demographic targets for President Obama’s re-election campaign. As the CAP analysts see it, winning over many white voters without college degrees, especially men in this category, who’ve been steadily moving away from Democrats at the national level for many years, is a losing battle. There are easier, more realistic avenues to success by making up electoral ground elsewhere.

Dems, the projections showed, wouldn’t give up on these voters altogether, of course, but would try to “keep Republican winning margins to manageable levels, in the 12 to 15 percent range, as opposed to the 30-point margin of 2010.”

This quickly turned into the Dems “advertising” that they’re “giving up” on the “white working class.”

Jon Chait described this as “a case of bad faith meeting a common and extremely simple fallacy afflicting political analysis.”

Obama can lose the white working-class vote by 15 or even 20 points and still win, but he can’t lose the white working class by thirty points. One less vote in any cohort is one more vote you need to make up elsewhere. To concede that a candidate won’t win a majority among a demographic cohort is obviously not the same thing as “abandoning” it. A huge proportion of political analysis about demographics actually rests on the extremely silly error of treating voting blocs like winner-takes-all units.

Edsall took the further step of describing a paper by liberal analysts who do not work for the Obama campaign as a Democratic plan. That set the stage for heralds of conservative identity politics, ever vigilantly scanning the landscape for any hint of liberal disrespect for regular white people. The right-wing media turned the paper into Obama’s plan to abandon the white working class, which is mana for operatives always on the prowl for any hint of a wedge issue. Cue up Bernie Goldberg shaking his head at those snobby Democrats peering down their noses at blue-collar Joes. And the idiocy-fest was complete.

Jon didn’t raise this, but I wouldn’t be too terribly surprised if racial politics played a significant part in the right’s misleading rhetoric on this. Conservatives very likely see it as in their interests to convince the white working-class that the president is “abandoning” them while appealing to minority voters and better-educated whites. Indeed, the racial subtext of Fox News’ presentation on this wasn’t exactly subtle

But for those who still care about the fact, Democrats never said they’re “giving up” on the “white working class.” Indeed, from a policy perspective, Dems seem to be the only folks in Washington looking out for these voters’ interests at all.

Update: The Obama campaign was fairly explicit about its intentions when talking to Greg Sargent several days ago. Republican media outlets who continue to push the line anyway are simply not telling the truth.