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It's the White Working Class, Stupid

There are many theories about what drove the 2004 election results and some of the more fanciful (exurbs, fast-growing counties, evangelicals, Hispanics, values voters) have been critiqued on this site. Now, with the release of the raw data from the 2004 NEP exit poll, it is possible to do some closer analysis of trends that really were of high salience. One such trend was the movement of white working class voters away from the Democratic ticket.

Here some findings from an initial pass through the NEP national data:

1. In 2000, Gore lost white working class (defined as whites with less than a four year college degree) voters by 17 points; this year, Kerry lost them by 23 points, a swing of 6 points against the Democrats. In contrast, Gore lost college-educated whites by 9 points and Kerry lost them by 10 points--not much change.

Therefore, white working class voters were responsible for almost all of Bush's increased margin among whites as a whole (which went from 12 to 17 points). And Bush's increased margin among whites, of course, was primarily responsible for his re-election.

2. Almost all of the white working class movement toward Bush was among white working class women, rather than white working class men. Bush won white working class men by almost identical margins in the two elections (29 points in 2000 and by 30 points in 2004). But he substantially widened his margin among white working class women, going from a 7 lead in '00 to an 18 point lead in '04. That 11 point swing against the Democrats among white working class women is arguably arguably the most important single fact about the 2004 election.

3. Looking at married versus single white working class women, both groups appear to have swung substantially against the Democrats. Single white working class women (38 percent of white working class women) went Democratic by 15 points in 2000, but only by 2 points in 2004. Married white working class women (62 percent of white working class women) gave Bush a 15 margin in 2000 and more than doubled that margin, to 31 points, in 2004. Since married white working class women are the bulk of this group and had a slightly larger pro-Republican shift, they are responsible for most of the shift toward Bush among white working class women, but their single counterparts clearly made an important contribution as well.

4. But why did these shifts against the Democrats among the white working class occur? That's a topic that deserves a lengthy discussion, but here are some data to ponder from the NEP poll:

Among white working class voters, 66 percent said they trusted Bush to handle terrorism, compared to just 35 percent who said the same about Kerry. That's pretty bad, but check this out: 55 percent of these voters said they trusted Bush to handle the economy and only 39 percent said the same about Kerry. Guess that Kerry message about the economy didn't quite get through to the white working class!

It's also interesting to note that there wasn't much of a difference in these sentiments among men and women in the white working class: 55 percent of white working class women said they trusted Bush to handle the economy and 40 percent said they trusted Kerry, while 56 percent of white working class men said they trusted Bush on the economy and 37 percent said they trusted Kerry.

That's something to ponder. Not only were white working class women alarmed about terrorism, but they were also, in contrast to previous elections, no more likely to find the Democratic economic message compelling than their male counterparts.