The White Working Class and the 2004 Election
As we head into the fall campaign, Kerry and the Democrats seem to doing very well indeed well among their key constituencies (see my last two posts). That reality is widely-appreciated and is one of the reasons why Kerry is given such a good chance of knocking off Bush this November.
But there is another development that could truly doom Bush this November and is much less widely-appreciated: his support among white working class voters, who were the bulwark of the Reagan coalition and drove the Republican victories in 2000 and 2002, has eroded quite dramatically due to the continued underperformance of the economy and, especially, disaffection with the Iraq war.
The White Working Class and the Reagan Coalition
It all goes back to the Nixon victories in the elections of 1968 and 1972. The average white working class vote for the Democrats in 1960-64 was 55 percent; the average vote for the Democrats in 1968-72 was 35 percent. That’s a drop of 20 points. The Republicans suddenly became the party of the white working class.
With the sharp economic recession and Nixon scandals of 1973-74, the Democrats were able to develop enough political momentum to retake the White House in 1976, with Jimmy Carter’s narrow defeat of Gerald Ford. But their political revival did not last long.
Not only did the Carter administration fail to do much to defuse white working class hostility to the new social movements, especially the black liberation movement, but economic events--the stagflation of the late 1970s--conspired to make that hostility even sharper. Though stagflation (combined inflation and unemployment with slow economic growth) first appeared during the 1973-75 recession, it persisted during the Carter administration and was peaking on the eve of the 1980 election. As the economy slid once more into recession, the inflation rate in that year was 12.5 percent. Combined with an unemployment rate of 7.1 percent, it produced a “misery index” of nearly 20 percent.
The stagflation fed resentments about race – about high taxes for welfare (which were assumed to go primarily to minorities) and about affirmative action. But it also sowed doubts about Democrats’ ability to manage the economy and made Republican and business explanations of stagflation – blaming it on government regulation, high taxes and spending – more plausible. In 1978, the white backlash and doubts about Democratic economic policies had helped to fuel a nationwide tax revolt. In 1980, these factors reproduced the massive exodus of white working class voters from the Democratic tickets first seen in 1968 and 1972.. In the 1980 and 1984 elections, Reagan averaged 61 percent support among the white working class, compared to an average of 35 percent support for his Democratic opponents, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.
The White Working Class and the Clinton Years
Cracking the GOP’s hold on the white working class was key to the Clinton election victories of 1992 and 1996. Instead of losing the white working class by the gaudy margins of the Reagan years, he actually carried white working class voters in both elections–albeit very narrowly, by a single point in each case (39-38 in 1992 and 44-43 in 1996).
In both elections, Clinton carried white working class voters with the most modest educational credentials (high school dropouts) easily (by 17 and 20 points respectively). And he even carried white voters with a high school diploma, but no college, in both elections (by 1 and 4 points respectively).
But in neither election could he carry the elite of the white working class, those with an A.A. degree or some college. In 1992 he lost them by 4 points and in 1996 actually lost them by a slightly larger margin (5 points).
It’s also worth noting that in 1994, when the Democrats lost the House and white working class voters deserted them in droves, that they sustained their greatest losses, and received their lowest support, among whites with some college.
The White Working Class and the 2000 Election
In 2000, the Democrats went backwards several steps in terms of white working class support and that was the key to Bush “victory” such as it was. Without far out-performing Dole in terms of white working class support, Bush wouldn’t have had a chance.
Gore lost white working class voters as a whole by 17 points and he did worst of all among whites with some college, losing them by 20 points, including an astonishing 32 point deficit among white men with some college (32-64).
The White Working Class and the 2002 Election
And in the 2002 election, the Democrats sank still further in terms of white working class support, losing these voters as a whole by 18 points and, once again, doing worst among whites with some college, losing them by 24 points (38-62).
The White Working Class and the 2004 Election
As these data make clear, the Republicans are thoroughly dependent on carrying white working class voters by large margins, especially the white working class elite, those with some college. Therefore, if they cannot at least replicate their levels of support from 2000, they have little chance of winning.
And therein lies the problem. Data from this election cycle suggest that working class whites, particularly those with some college–the bulwark of GOP white working class support–are not giving Bush the margins he received in 2000 due to factors such as the sluggish economy, rising health care costs and, above all, disenchantment with the war in Iraq.
Consider this analysis, taken from my new article with John Judis, "White Flight: Bush Loses His Base" in the latest New Republic.
In June 2003, according to Gallup, 65 percent of white, working-class voters thought it was "worth going to war" in Iraq, while only 33 percent disagreed. By late May 2004, only 52 percent thought the war was worth fighting, and 46 percent thought it was not. The change among workers with some college was even more dramatic. They went from 70 to 30 percent in favor of the war to only 52 to 46 percent, a 34-point swing.
Other groups, including senior citizens, minorities, young voters, and voters with postgraduate education, have also become disillusioned with the war, but they were not as supportive to begin with. White, working-class voters were the bastion of pro-war sentiment. And, unlike minority voters or postgrads, they were also thoroughly supportive of Bush's presidency. So, while the war probably hasn't reduced Bush's already slim support among minority voters, it is undermining his support among the white working class, perhaps his most crucial voting bloc.
....In late May and early June [for example], Gallup polls showed white, working-class voters, who had favored Bush over Gore by 17 percent in 2000, favoring him over Kerry by an average of only 50 to 42 percent. Moreover, Bush led among workers with some college by only 49 to 44 percent--a difference of 15 points from the 2000 election. Since these are national figures and since white workers in battleground states are substantially more Democratic than white workers elsewhere, one has to assume Bush's margins are even smaller--and perhaps nonexistent--in West Virginia and other Midwestern battlegrounds.
How significant is this? Very:
White, working-class voters make up the bulk of voters in many battleground states. In West Virginia, for example, they comprise 74 percent of the electorate; in Missouri, 64 percent; in Ohio and Pennsylvania, just over 60 percent. If Bush wins white, working-class voters in the battleground states by more than ten points, he should carry most of them. But, if his advantage falls below this margin, he will be in trouble. And that's what seems to be happening.
Indeed, if Bush can’t do better--much better--than he's currently doing among white working class voters in swing states, it is safe to say that his re-election effort is doomed. But if these voters have deserted Bush, above all, because of the Iraq war, than pumping up his support among these voters would seem to depend on convincing them that war with Iraq is going much better and accomplishing much more than it appears to be doing. Given the disillusion that has set in, and the realities on the ground in Iraq, that may be very difficult to do.
In 2002, the GOP benefitted greatly from pro-Bush sentiment among these voters generated by their perception that he was a warrior–and a successful one–against America’s enemies. In 2004, the perception that he is a less successful warrior and after the wrong enemies appears to be dragging him down considerably among these very same voters. You live by the sword, you die by the sword.