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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Democrats and the Middle Class (Continued)

Yesterday, I covered the first three basic findings from the Third Way report on Democrats and the middle class. The fourth basic finding of the report is:

With the exception of those with graduate degrees, education level does not predict voting behavior. Education level predicts income, which predicts voting behavior.

This just isn’t right. In fact, if you look carefully at the data in their own report you can see that education does have an effect on level of Democratic support, even controlling for level of income. But the report’s authors are intent on showing that, at any given level of education, income has an important effect on Democratic support. This is undeniably true, but they appear to believe that establishing that fact somehow proves education has no independent effect on income. Wrong. Both relationships can and do exist: income has an effect on Democratic support at any given level of education and education has an effect on Democratic support at any given level of income.
Take the white middle class, on whom the report tends to focus. In 2004, Bush beat Kerry by 33 points among non-college-educated middle class whites, but only by 3 points among college-educated (a four year degree or more) middle class whites. Moreover, between 2000 and 2004, Bush’s margin among non-college-educated middle class whites increased by 15 points, while his margin among college-educated middle class whites increased by just 7 points.
Lest one think that the differences between college-educated and non-college-educated middle class whites in 2004 were all driven by postgraduate middle class whites, those middle class whites with a four year degree only were still markedly less pro-Bush (an 18 point smaller margin) than the non-college-educated.
Conclusion: yes, income matters–but so does education.
The final basic finding of the report is:

The entrance of married women into the middle class led to a dramatic increase in Republican support.

This is awkwardly phrased, making it sound like there’s some sort of social trend with married women “entering” the middle class and then voting Republican. What they’re really saying here–what their data show–is that married women, particularly white married women, with moderate to high incomes voted Republican in 2004, while unmarried women with those incomes still leaned Democratic (though less so, the higher the income level).
But we knew that.
Anyway, I don’t want these criticisms to lead people away from the report. On the contrary, I want people to grapple with it. The authors of the report and Third Way as an organization are to be commended for making an empirically-based case for their political views, instead of simply asserting that their views are correct. We could use more, not less, of this kind of serious data analysis as the debate in and around the Democratic party continues.
And I certainly don’t disagree with the thrust of the some of the final remarks in the report:

Democrats talk and legislate a great deal about issues that they believe are of concern to the middle class, such as better schools, affordable health care, and job security. This has not translated into middle class votes. Assuming these issues are truly important to middle class voters (and there is no reason to believe they are not), it could be that Democrats have a set of flawed messages that do not reach the middle class. Or, the middle class may simply believe that their schools will not be better, their health care will not be more affordable, and their jobs will not be more secure should Democrats run the Congress and control the White House.

Either way, the so-called party of the middle class has some serious work to do. Hats off to authors of this report for calling our attention to this challenge.