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The Politics of Definition, Part II

By Ruy Teixeira

Part II of The Politics of Definition, my new paper with John Halpin, has now been posted on The American Prospect website. Part I was posted last Thursday; Part III will arrive on Wednesday; and the concluding Part IV will be posted on Friday.

Part II discusses in considerable detail the weaknesses progressives need to overcome in order to forge a majority coalition. Here is a the first part of the discussion, which focuses on progressive weakness among the white working class.

The key weakness of the progressive coalition can be summarized easily: very weak support among white working class voters (defined here as whites without a four-year college degree). These voters, who are overwhelmingly of moderate to low income and, by definition, of modest credentials, should see their aspirations linked tightly to the political fate of the progressive movement. But they don’t.

Data from the last two presidential elections vividly demonstrate this problem and underscore its significance for progressives. In 2000, Al Gore lost white working-class voters by 17 percentage points; in 2004, John 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 George W. Bush’s increased margin among whites as a whole in the 2004 election (which went from 12 to 17 points). And Bush’s increased margin among whites was primarily responsible for his re-election.

Almost all of the white working-class movement toward Bush was among women rather than men. Bush won white working-class men by almost identical margins in the two elections (by 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-point edge in 2000 to an 18-point lead in 2004. That 11-point swing against the Democrats among white working-class women was arguably the most important single fact about the 2004 election.

The basic reasons for this stunningly poor Democratic performance among the white working class can also be easily summarized. 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 very bad, but perhaps not all that surprising. What is more surprising is this: 55 percent of these voters said they trusted Bush to handle the economy, and only 39 percent said the same about Kerry.

It's also interesting to note that there wasn't much of a difference in these sentiments between 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 helps explain the big shift among white working-class women described above. Not only were these women alarmed about terrorism -- which pushed them toward the GOP -- but they were also, in contrast to previous elections, no more likely to find the Democratic economic message compelling than their male counterparts. In neither area --the economy or terrorism -- did the Democratic program speak clearly to these voters’ concerns and earn their trust.

It is also important to stress that Democrats did especially badly among white working-class voters who weren’t poor, but rather had moderate incomes and some hold on a middle-class lifestyle. Among working class whites with $30,000 to $50,000 in household income, Bush beat Kerry by 24 points (62 percent to 38 percent). And, among working-class whites with $50,000 to $75,000 in household income, Bush beat Kerry by a shocking 41 points (70 percent to 29 percent). Clearly, these voters do not see progressives as representing their aspirations for a prosperous, stable, middle-class life.

Progressives’ difficulties here are underscored by the large size of this group. According to the 2004 Current Population Survey (CPS) Voter Supplement data, white working-class voters are a larger portion of the electorate than indicated by the exit polls -- 52 percent, rather than 43 percent. Based on educational attainment trends and population trends by race, a reasonable guess is that the size of the white working class in another 10 years, even though it is shrinking, will still be around 46 percent to 47 percent -- a very large group among which to be doing very poorly. In fact, a progressive majority coalition is simply not possible if that poor performance continues, despite the many ways in which demographic change and growth favor progressives, including the increasing proportion of single women within the white working-class population.

But is it really feasible for progressives to significantly improve their performance among white working-class voters? That would appear to depend on the extent to which they can they can clarify their views and principles to these voters and begin earning their trust again. Right now, the Democrats are 23 points down to the Republicans among these voters on knowing what they stand for. Narrowing that gap is key to improving performance among this critical group.

And there is a lot of room for that improved performance. Keep in mind that Bill Clinton actually carried white working-class voters in both his successful presidential campaigns (by a single percentage point in both instances).

But Democrats need not replicate that performance. If Democrats can simply keep the Republican margin among white working-class voters to the low double digits (say 11 to 12 points), and maintain their margins from 2004 among college-educated whites and among minority groups (note that we assume no improvement from 2004 in the Democratic performance among Hispanics, though we strongly believe that is likely to happen), our estimates indicate that the Democrats would win the popular vote in the next presidential election by 3 points. That would be an exact reversal of the 2004 popular vote, which Bush won by around 3 points.

And if the Democrats can keep the Republican margin among working-class whites to single digits? Then it should be possible to start building a solid majority coalition for progressives in very short order.

Other sections of Part II discuss white Catholics, white married women, white evangelicals, "red" states and regions, and emerging suburbs, true exurbs and rural areas. I think you'll find the material illuminating and, believe it or not, encouraging, because it does suggest that a politics of definition could make substantial inroads among these groups.