Friday, May 13, 2005

White Working Class Voters and the Democratic Economic Agenda

May 12, 2005
White Working Class Voters and the Democratic Economic Agenda

By Ralph Whitehead, Jr.

What's surprising, amid the stream of post-election advice to Democrats, is how little of it so far has been devoted to a sustained effort to identify which segments of the beyond-our-base electorate ought to be our targets for the next time around. Our side did a brilliant job of mobilizing our base, but still fell short, because the other side did more than just mobilize its base. It also tried to pick off voters beyond its base, such as white Catholics with weak Democratic leanings, Hispanics (both Catholic and Pentecostal), steelworkers in West Virginia and Ohio and Pennsylvania, African-Americans in Ohio, Jewish voters in South Florida, and married mothers. As they say in the NFL, the Republicans played in our backfield, but we didn't play in theirs. We need an equivalent list, the better to figure out how we, too, can appeal to voters beyond our base, and should get started on the list and the figuring-out ASAP.

One group that belongs on the list is white working class voters–white voters without a four-year degree--especially those of working-age who don't live in union households. White working class voters as a whole make up around half of the electorate and, according to Ruy Teixeira’s analysis of the 2004 NEP exit poll data, they voted for Bush by a margin of 23 points. Because they favored Bush by a smaller 17 point margin in Gore's popular-vote victory of 2000, Kerry could have come very close to winning the 2004 election simply by keeping his losing margin among working class voters at Gore’s level.

If you're inclined to attribute the 2004 drubbing among white working class voters in part to the their social and cultural concerns, you're on solid ground. We ignore those concerns at our peril. At the same time, though, there has been a view that we can override those concerns (up to a point) by appealing to the white working class on the economy. What is striking in Teixeira’s analysis of the 2004 NEP data, consequently, is his finding that noncollege white voters favored Bush on the economy by a margin of 55 to 39. Our economic agenda isn't yet a magic bullet.

Consequently, it's important to develop an economic agenda that appeals strongly enough to the white working class to be able to pull some of its members into our column. In developing this agenda, I would argue, we have to swallow hard and acknowledge a couple of daunting obstacles that stand before us....