Heard of the waitress mom? She’s the pivotal voting block in the November election, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Twenty percent of working white women hold jobs in the service industry, and they’re the kind of voters that Senator Rick Santorum is trying to capture on the Republican side.
And it's not just women—white voters are again a prize demographic. To describe this electoral prize, some use less polite terms. “Santorum’s surge fueled by downscale and conservative voters,” read a headline a Washington Post blog this week.
White working class voters get mythologized and redefined nearly every presidential cycle. They're “regular folks” as Chris Matthews called them in 2008, the “Reagan Democrats,” or Nixon’s “Silent Majority.”
In 2012, they're both a decisive electoral bloc and “Coming Apart,” as conservative writer Charles Murray concludes in his new book about white America.
Recent polls illustrating Santorum's surge confirm what political scientists have been arguing about American voters, class and race: it’s complicated. The richest voters support Republicans, but the richest states support Democrats. White voters without a college degree overwhelmingly favored Republicans in 2008 and 2010, but they’re making up a shrinking share of the electorate.
To some, Santorum’s recent traction has confirmed again that the Republican Party is not just the home of the rich.
“It shows that the Republican Party is not and hasn’t been for a couple of decades now the party of the upper middle class and upper class,” said Dean Lacy, a political science professor at Dartmouth.
But others have gone much further—suggesting it’s the party of the proletariat.
“The Republican Party is the party of the white working class,” David Brooks declared in The New York Times as Rick Santorum was surging just before Iowa caucus voting. “I suspect he will do better post-Iowa than most people think—before being buried under a wave of money and negative ads.”
Two months in, and Santorum’s not buried yet. In fact, he’s looking like a robust anchor dragging down Mitt Romney in national polls against Obama. Many have joined Brooks in crediting Santorum’s appeal to white working class voters for his success, but exit polls so far have him faring about the same with voters college-educated and not.
“The white working class voters are by far the most sympathetic to the Republicans,” admits Ruy Teixeira, a fellow at the Center for American Progress who has written about Obama’s path to victory in 2012. “But the demographic logic of things going forward is they need an ever-larger share of the vote among a declining demographic to truly remain competitive.”
The GOP: the Party of the Working Man?
In this Republican primary campaign, it makes sense for these voters to be front-and-center. It’s where Senator John McCain ran up some of his totals in 2008. White voters made up 74 percent of the electorate in 2008, and McCain won their support by a margin of 12 points over Obama. The margin was even bigger—18 points—for white voters who’d never gone to college, at 39 percent of the vote.
“They’re absolutely part of the base,” said Republican strategist Mark KcKinnon, who worked for George W. Bush and John McCain. “They’ve become a really core constituency, and in order for Republicans to win, they’ve got to capture a huge proportion of those voters.”
For now, McKinnon said 2012 still looks like a good year for Republicans to build on their lead here in 2008. “The problem with the white working class is that too many of them aren’t working, and that’s why Republicans have a real chance to get them.”
The white working class has been pummeled by the economic downturn. The unemployment rate for white workers with a college degree was just 4.3 percent in 2010, compared to 13.9 percent for those without a high school diploma or 7.6 percent with some college.
But come the general election, it’ll be time for a different script. White working class voters make up a shrinking share of the general electorate. The racial makeup of the country is changing, and while new black, Hispanic, and Asian voters led to turnout records in 2008, the number of white voters stayed consistent from 2004, according to the Census.
Participation in elections also increased markedly by education level in 2004 and 2008. In 2008, a voter with a college degree was eight times more likely to vote than one with less than a high school education. Democratic consultants concede that Obama will not win these voters. But they can’t ignore them, said Ruy Teixeira, because they have to contain the flight to the Republican side.
Playing the Margins
“It doesn’t matter in the sense that the Democrats have much of a chance to actually carry the white working class vote, but it matters how relatively well they do.”
Teixeira estimated that Obama could lose working class votes by around a 20-point margin. “If it’s much more, he does stand to lose the election, probably.”
That’s a very different strategy than the years immediately after Clinton. Back then, Ruy Teixeira argued for Democrats to take up economic populism and appeal directly to what he called “the forgotten majority,” and argued that appealing to white working class voters was essential for the future of the Democratic Party.
“For now the real swing voters in politics are waiting for someone who understands both their values and their economic experience,” Teixeira and co-author Joel Rogers wrote in The Atlantic in 2000. “And the Republicans do not appear to qualify.”
But for 2012, Teixeira argued with John Halpin in the report “The Path to 270” for the Center for American Progress, a resonating pitch from Democrats to white working class voters is a game of defense against the Republican’s biggest strength.
“Certainly I think it’s what they rely upon the most,” Teixeira said. “They can’t really win national election without overwhelming support among white working class voters. Their margins have to be bigger.”
What’s Working Class Today, Anyway?
Still, for all the chatter about the electoral importance of white working class voters, pundits and political scientists haven’t settled on who these voters actually are.
Conservative writers like Michael Barone have called Obama voters “a top-and-bottom coalition,” made up of voters earning over $200,000 and under $50,000. That prompted Barone to quip last December that “maybe it makes sense for Obama to write off the white working class.”
Separate out race, and the picture is more nuanced. Again, Obama lost white voters who didn’t attend college by 18 points. Look at income instead of education and you see a different picture: McCain fared better among richer white voters than poorer ones. McCain won white voters who earned less than $50,000 by just four points, compared to a 13 point advantage among white voters who earned more than $50,000.
“There’s a closer relationship between having a college degree and voting Democratic than the income,” explained Dartmouth political scientist Dean Lacy. “The income gap that people talked about in 2000 is really more of an education gap as of 2008.”
Income is not a consistent predictor in another way—it plays differently if the analysis is by region or by voter.
Income or Education?
Columbia political scientist Andrew Gelman has described how Democrats built an edge in richer states in the last half of the twentieth century. But when he looked at individual wealthy voters, he found the richest still tended to vote Republican. “The Republicans have the support of the richer voters within any given state but have more overall support in the poorer states,” Gelman wrote in a 2006 paper, “Rich State, Poor State, Red State, Blue State.”
Got that? Republicans looked to have the edge in poorer states, while holding on to the wealthiest voters no matter where they lived.
After the 2008 election, Gelman updated his study and found an increased probability of voting for McCain as voters’ income increased in Republican, Democratic and swing states.
But Dartmouth's Dean Lacy warns against considering income alone to predict Republican outcomes. As The New York Times described in its report on conservative voters' reliance on the safety net, Lacy has analyzed states by a number of income variables: median income, the median income of the richest five percent, the median income of the bottom 20 percent, and income inequality. He found that none of these factors was a reliable predictor of whether a state would go Republican. Instead, he found the most reliable predictor was something else entirely. If a country receives more in federal welfare payments, he found, it’s more likely to go Republican.
“The counties that are getting more in crop subsidies, housing assistance, and Medicaid payments are a lot more Republican,” Lacy said in an interview. “So it really is about that catch-all category that you might call welfare.”
It’s the Economy, Stupid — or Is It Abortion?
But Lacy is not arguing that it’s the higher local federal spending itself that is causing voters in these districts to vote Republican, like some kind of perverse shame motivation.
“Voters now are voting more based on social issues especially in the south and Great Plains, but they don’t have to worry about losing government,” Lacy described. “So they have the luxury of voting on social issues knowing that these federal spending programs will be kept in place.”
That's helped the Republican Party become the clear home for white voters with conservative social values, political scientists Tauku Lee and Zoltan Hajnal reported in a 2010 study of race and political independents. “Those on the far right of the political spectrum are much less apt to abandon the Republican Party than those on the far left are to abandon the Democratic Party,” Lee and Hajnal concluded. "The Christian Right has been effectively co-opted by the Republican Party."
As the Republicans have drawn these conservative social issue voters into their base, high levels of federal spending has continued in the south and Great Plains region, and Lacy said Republican lawmakers “defend them as much as the Democrats of 30 or 40 years ago.”
Until Tea Party activists and deficit hawks started pushing to upset this status quo, that is.
That explains Rick Santorum’s particular political quandary now, as he gets criticized for his federal spending votes in the Senate while running a presidential campaign based on slashing government.
“He’s exactly the kind of Republican who’s been able to protect special spending for his state and get reelected largely based on his position on social issues,” Lacy said.
And in the end, general elections are won in the middle. And that’s why if Republicans stay on their current course, Democratic strategist Ruy Teixeira likes Obama’s chances.
“If social issues helped one side or the other in this coming election, it’d be more likely to be Obama than his opponent.”