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The Progressive Majority and Perot Voters

by Ruy Teixeira

The Pew Research Center and other recent polls indicate the clear potential for a progressive majority in this country. But the key word here is “potential”. As the Democracy Corps’ memo on their latest poll points out, progressives, despite the widespread rejection of Bush’s policies and the strong interest in change have still not been able to pump up their political support into a solid majority. In other words, there is a majority against Bush’s policies, but still not a majority for progressives and progressive policies.

The answer, the DCorps memo argues, lies in adopting a stance that is “reformist, populist and nationalist, armed with new ideas for renewing the country”. And the target group can usefully be thought of as Perot voters–the kind of voters who voted for Ross Perot in 1992, but then drifted into the Republican coalition thereafter, rather than into the progressive camp. These are the sort of voters who today are massively dissatisfied with Bush and his policies, but still can’t quite align their desire for change with support for progressives.

To help bring this group into focus, I offer the following analysis of Perot voters from my book, America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters:

...[T]wo-thirds of Perot's supporters were drawn from the ranks of the forgotten majority. They came from the new white working class, had low to moderate incomes, and, compared to the celebrated Reagan Democrats of the 1980’s, tended to be somewhat younger and less concentrated in the Rust Belt and South. As journalist John Judis has pointed out, they were the next generation of Reagan Democrats. And without these forgotten majority voters, there would have been no Perot phenomenon.

A second characteristic of Perot voters was their rapidly deteriorating economic position. Analysis of several different data sourcesi reveals that, while both Clinton and Perot voters came from groups that experienced wage losses in the 1980's and early 1990's, Perot voters' losses were uniformly larger. This was partly because Perot voters were so heavily drawn from the ranks of the forgotten majority and because forgotten majority Perot voters actually did worse economically than their counterparts who voted for Bush or Clinton. For example, forgotten majority Perot voters lost 10 percent in real wages between 1979 and 1992, including over 2 percent in wage losses that took place in the year immediately prior to the 1992 election. In both periods, this is larger than the wage losses sustained by similar Clinton or Bush voters.

A third characteristic of Perot voters — hardly surprising in light of the economic trends just cited — was their gloomy outlook on the economy and its future path. In the 1992 exit poll, some 70 percent of Perot voters said they thought the economy was in longterm decline, rather than a temporary downturn (at the time, this pessimism was shared by Clinton voters). And in terms of prospects for the future generation, Perot voters were easily the gloomiest. Some 50 percent said they thought life for the next generation would be worse, compared to 40 percent for Clinton voters and 28 percent for Bush voters. This pattern was confirmed by later polls. A Los Angeles Times poll conducted in June of 1993 showed 67 percent of Perot supporters expecting the next generation of Americans to have a worse standard of living than today's, compared to 55 percent of Republican supporters and 39 percent of Clinton supporters.

A fourth characteristic of Perot voters was their economic nationalism. The 1992 exit poll showed that Perot voters, by a 55 to 40 percent margin, believed that trade lost more jobs than it gained, a view they shared with Clinton voters. Later polling, especially around the NAFTA agreement, confirmed this economic nationalism — indeed it suggested that it had strengthened, since Perot voters/supporters were easily the most adamant opposition to the free trade agreement
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The final key characteristic of the Perot voters was the one most widely-cited in the press and political discussion: their relative conservatism both on values issues and the role of government. But a close reading of their responses to exit poll and other surveys suggests that Perot voters were hardly conservative ideologues on either the sanctity of traditional values or the wonders of the market once freed from government constraints. Instead, their "conservatism" was largely driven by a sense that middle class values were no longer being rewarded and that, in a very practical sense, the government was not doing its job and was therefore a waste of tax money (as opposed to not having a job to do, as free market ideologues would contend).

Thus, while Perot voters tended to agree with Bush voters on the desirability of a government that provides less in services but taxes less (72 and 79 percent support, respectively) and were most likely to cite the budget deficit as a voting issue, their views on the utility of government activism tended to be midway between those of Bush and Clinton voters. Asked if government neglect of domestic problems (as opposed to a values breakdown) could be held responsible for social problems in the country, for example, 50 percent of Perot voters blamed government neglect, compared to 25 percent of Bush voters and 70 percent of Clinton voters. Similarly, 50 percent of Perot voters agreed that government should do more to solve national problems, a view held by 36 percent of Bush voters and 73 percent of Clinton voters.

On hot-button social issues, Perot voters looked very much like Clinton supporters. For example, Perot voters' support for abortion rights was comparable to that of Clinton voters. In addition, a majority of both Perot and Clinton voters endorsed a "hands off" posture for government in promoting values. This suggests a libertarian bent to Perot voters' views on cultural values: they weren’t just skeptical of the government intervening in the economy and society but also in private lives as well.

But on issues related to core American values — particularly the sense that those who cleave to those values and work hard are not being rewarded properly — Perot voters and Bush voters were of the same mind. For example, in a 1993 poll, 76 percent of Perot voters and 75 percent of Bush voters (compared to 59 percent of Clinton voters) agreed that "it's the middle class, not the poor, who really get a raw deal today?."....

This analysis helps clarify both the opportunities and challenges progressives have in building a majority at the current time. These voters, one can fairly assume, are ready for change....but are progressives ready for them? We shall see