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Democrats and the Middle Class

Third Way is an organization that describes itself as "Modernizing the Progressive Cause to Connect with Mainstream America", certainly a worthy endeavor. The founders of the organization include Jonathan Cowan, Jim Kessler, Matt Bennett, Nancy Hale and Nancy Jacobson, all serious, thoughtful Democrats. They have now entered the what's-wrong-with-the-Democrats debate with a new report "Unrequited Love: Middle Class Voters Reject Democrats at the Ballot Box", based primarily on 2004 exit poll data. The report has been circulating around Washington (though no public link is available for the report as yet) and has been written up in the Washingon Post, so it is getting a fair amount of exposure.

Here are my observations on the report, which while useful, tends to overstate its case and make some questionable claims.

The report is organized around five basic findings. The first is:

White middle income voters (who constitute three-quarters of the middle class and one-third of the entire electorate), delivered landslide margins to Republicans. The economic tipping point the income level at which whites were more likely to vote Republican than Democrat was $23,700, not far above the poverty level....

There is no difference in the preferences of white middle class and white wealthy class voters.....

The claim that the Democrats lost the white middle class (defined here as between $30,000 and $75,000 in family income) by a wide margin is correct. It is also correct that there was little difference between the political preferences of these voters and those of white "wealthy class" (defined here those with over $75,000 in family income) voters in this election. Bush carried both of these groups by 22-23 points.

On the other hand, this situation (white middle class and more affluent---it seems silly to call them wealthy--voters having similar voting patterns) also obtained in the 2000 election. Bush carried both groups by about 15 points in that election. So both groups moved toward Bush by similar amounts in 2004.

As for the claim that $23,700 is some kind kind of "tipping point" among white voters, I wouldn't take that too seriously. It's not in the exit polls directly, of course, which contain only income data by category. What the report's authors do is assume that, since whites below $15,000 supported Kerry and whites $15,000-$30,000 gave Bush a small margin that the tipping point is somewhere in the latter category. Maybe so, but there's little methodological justification for ginning up such a precise estimate of that tipping point and their confusing explanation for how they arrived at that precise $23,700 estimate does not inspire confidence.

The report's second basic finding is:

Contrary to other voters, blacks conferred overwhelming majorities to Democrats, regardless of income level.

No argument there. That contention is solid.

The report's third basic finding is:

A rapidly growing Hispanic middle class is leaving the Democratic Party.

The report kind of goes off the rails here. One of the reasons for this is their use of the now-discredited Hispanic sample in the national exit poll, which leads them to report that Kerry defeated Bush among the Hispanic middle class by only 10 points. If you use the more reliable Hispanic sample from the combined state exit polls, you find that low income Hispanics supported Kerry by 40 points, middle class Hispanics supported him by 17 points and affluent Hispanics by 4 points.

Leaving the Democratic party seems a bit strong. On the other hand, it is true that Hispanic middle class voters moved more toward Bush between 2000 and 2004 than other income groups and that is cause for concern. At this point, the middle class Hispanic vote drives the overall Hispanic vote and, therefore, the key to moving the Hispanic vote toward the Democrats is building up their margins among middle class Hispanics.

As for the "rapidly-growing Hispanic middle class", one should be cautious about this. While the exit polls do show a big shift toward middle and high income Hispanic voters between 1996 and 2000, they show no such shift between 2000 and 2004. In fact, they show middle class Hispanics actually declining slightly to 45 percent of Hispanic voters in 2004, from 47 percent in 2000, while high income Hispanics go up a single point, from 23 percent to 24 percent of Hispanic voters. This should perhaps not be so surprising: the real median income of Hispanic households declined by about $2,500 between 2000 and 2003 (2004 data not yet available).

More on "Democrats and the Middle Class" tomorrow.....