Can the Democrats be an effective governing party without winning more support from the white working class? We asked two top strategists to weigh in, and are also happy to publish in this issue a special section on the subject put together by our friends at the Democratic Strategist.
Conventional wisdom holds that President Barack Obama and the Democrats have a deepening problem with white working-class voters, akin to the one that gave us Reagan Democrats. In the last election, Obama did particularly poorly with non-college-educated white men, a group that, as Ron Brownstein has observed, was “once the brawny backbone of the New Deal-era Democratic coalition.” It’s also widely held that the Democrats’ problems with the white working class are partly responsible for the party’s poor performance in most rural parts of the country, as well as the reason that it struggles during off-year elections, when voters of color and Millennials are a smaller share of the over-all turnout.
Many observers have posed an intriguing question: Can Democrats win national elections with their growing national coalition—Millennials, minorities, grad-school-educated whites, and so on—without targeting or addressing the needs of white working-class voters? Implicitly, they are asking whether Democrats can build a national majority by primarily addressing the identity and values issues that appeal to this new coalition—such as racial and gender equality, immigration, and gay marriage—while paying scant attention to the so-called lunch-pail economic and material issues that are traditionally of greatest concern to working-class whites.
But white working-class voters could not be more central to Democrats. And not only are they winnable for Democrats with attention to the right set of issues, but there were already sizable numbers of them voting Democratic as recently as 2012.
You would not know that by most of the press coverage. That’s because the competitiveness of Democrats among white working-class voters overall has been obscured by the hostility of the subset of those voters who live in the South, Appalachia, and the Mountain West. According to 13,000 interviews that Democracy Corps conducted in 2012, Obama received a pathetic 25 percent of the vote with whites who lack a four-year college degree in the South and just 33 percent of that demographic in the Mountain West.
This is the consequence of the increasing importance of race and religious faith in shaping partisan identity in the country’s conservative regions. During the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, white non-college-educated voters in the South identified as Republican by a 10-point margin—but that margin doubled to 21 points in 2004 and surged to a 33-point advantage for Republicans in the 2012 elections. By then, only 29 percent of white non-college-educated voters in the South identified with the Democratic Party. In the Mountain West, the Republican advantage surged to 35 points under Obama, while Democratic support sunk to only 29 percent of white working-class voters.
The growing conservative revolt against Obama and the Democrats in the conservative regions of the country drove down the overall white working-class Obama vote, but it also suppressed other conventional demographic divides. Whites in the South—men and women, college educated and not, young and old—all pretty much equally oppose Obama. There is no gender gap in the white working class in the South. White college-educated men and white Millennials also vote alike across the South and Mountain West states.
Those very important developments obscure the fact that Obama performed respectably with white working-class voters everywhere else in the country. Obama won white non-college-educated voters in New England (51 to 42 percent) and tied with Romney (47 to 46 percent) across Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota, according to Democracy Corps surveys.
Obama trailed by only 7 points in the mid-Atlantic states (44 to 51 percent). And even though the Midwest lagged behind most of the country in recovering from the Great Recession, Obama still received 41 percent of white non-college-educated voters in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. In the Pacific Coast states, where more and more white voters are college educated, Obama was just 10 points behind Romney.
It turns out, as Nate Cohn of the New York Times has observed, that the GOP has a problem with white voters, too, which takes us to the second problem with the prevailing narrative and assumptions: the changing character of the working class itself.
Back when many of us took up the political project to bring Reagan Democrats back to the Democratic fold, nearly 27 percent of employment was in blue-collar jobs like manufacturing and construction and mining. Employment in the production of goods dominated blue-collar employment, followed by employment in transportation and moving materials. Today, when people think of the white working class, they are still likely to focus on the imagery of the “average Joe” or the “ordinary guy.” Conservatives are particularly fond of evoking “Joe Six-pack” and “Joe the plumber.” The dominant imagery is a candidate surrounded by workers in hard hats, usually at a construction site. But as Andrew Levinson points out in his excellent book, The White Working Class Today, these stereotypes are increasingly out of date and inaccurate.
For example, a lot of blue-collar work today takes place in small groups rather than in factory settings, and most construction workers are self-employed contractors. Moreover, if by blue-collar jobs we mean jobs that involve routine and repetitive tasks, require limited skills, are closely supervised, and offer no autonomy during working hours, then it turns out that half of all white male workers and 40 percent of white working women are blue collar. Far from working on factory floors, more and more workers are employed in service-sector jobs like health care, leisure and hospitality, and, particularly, professional and business services.
If Democrats cannot figure out how to appeal to today’s working-class voters, then they don’t deserve to lead. Nearly all of the people in these jobs have not seen a raise in years. The majority of them, who now work in the service sector—maids and housekeepers, waitresses and hostesses, cooks and dishwashers, counter attendants and ticket takers, janitors and hairdressers and child care workers—earn, on average, about $400 a week.
In some instances, today’s post-industrial members of the working class need the same things from government that their counterparts did in the industrial era: a safe workplace, affordable health care, and a sound pension system, for example. But other issues are comparatively new. Female labor force participation now equals male participation. A majority of households are made up of unmarried couples and parents, and mothers are the sole or primary providers in 40 percent of American homes. All the issues surrounding the balancing of work and family life, including child care and pre-K education, speak directly to the needs of today’s working class.
It’s true that as the GOP becomes encamped in race-conscious and religiously fundamentalist areas of the country, the party becomes increasingly uncompetitive among people of all stripes outside of these regions, including Millennials, metropolitan-area residents, and the secular and religious mainstream—and that’s before we take into account foreign-born immigrants and racial minorities. Accordingly, less than a quarter of the country identifies with the Republican Party, and the Democrats’ Electoral College count is increasingly daunting.
But in our constitutional system, which favors rural and less dense areas, and our federal system, which allows Republicans to hold unified control of twenty-three states, Democrats can only truly govern and advance their agenda when they make working people even more central to their platform. That means that the white working class matters, possibly more than ever.