The co-editors of The Democratic Strategist are all very strongly associated with the view that, to create an enduring Democratic majority, Dems have to win the support of a substantial minority of working class voters.
In a Brookings Institution study early this spring TDS co-editor Ruy Teixeira provided an up to date analysis of the underlying population demographics that support this view and last month TDS co-editor Stan Greenberg led a team from Democracy Corps that conducted a sophisticated survey and focus group analysis of Macomb county, Michigan seeking to understand the attitudes of working class voters in this election and to find the best ways to win their support.
The objective of winning working class support was clearly evident in the Democratic convention. As Ron Brownstein noted yesterday:
Democrats sought to segment the voters by class. They presented Obama (the “son of a single mom”) and running mate Joe Biden (the “scrappy kid from Scranton”) as working-class heroes who would defend the middle-class because they are products of it. The Democrats portrayed McCain as an out-of-touch economic elitist who doesn’t understand the interests of average families.
The Republicans, in contrast “sought to segment the voters along cultural lines”
They presented McCain as the personification of timeless values–honor and duty. Far more importantly (and effectively), they introduced vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin as an embodiment of small-town America who champions conservative social values not only in public life but also in her private life. They completed the picture with tough national security messages that usually resonate loudest with the same traditionalist voters most attracted to conservative social positions. Meanwhile, the Republicans portrayed Obama as an out-of-touch cultural elitist who belittles small towns like Palin’s Wasilla as not “cosmopolitan enough.”
On the surface, national economic conditions would seem to favor the Democrats. But, as Brownstein notes, “The first post-convention polls suggested that the Republicans succeeded more than the Democrats in dividing the electorate along the lines they prefer.”
An array of surveys released this week show McCain dominating among economically pressed but culturally conservative (and generally hawkish) white working-class voters, just as President Bush did in 2004.
In the Diageo/Hotline daily tracking survey this week, Obama was winning just 30 percent of white men without a college education, even lower than the meager 35 percent share that exit polls recorded for John Kerry in 2004. Among white no college women, Obama was attracting just 37 percent, down from Kerry’s 40 percent. Among “waitress moms” (married white women without college degrees), Obama was polling just 33 percent in the Diageo/Hotline survey, no improvement on Kerry’s anemic 32 percent.
To be sure, this is very disappointing (and there is reason to think that these numbers may improve somewhat between now and Election Day). But there are, in fact, entirely reasonable explanations for why the Democratic convention did not produce the movement toward Obama that was hoped for – explanations which suggest how Dems can do substantially better in the future.
(In fact, after the election, The Democratic Strategist will launch a major initiative to bring together Democrats from every sector of the party to develop an organized and coherent three-year strategy for peeling off a significant number of the more “middle of the road” members of the Republican working class coalition in time for the 2012 election.)
But right now, Obama and the Democrats face a difficult strategic choice. As Brownstein notes:
…some analysts wonder whether Obama might be better served by shifting his focus toward upscale voters more likely to recoil from a Republican ticket that wants to ban abortion and has praised the teaching of creationism.
Obama recently dipped his toe in that water with a radio ad presenting McCain as a threat to legalized abortion. This week, Biden also lashed the GOP platform’s opposition to stem-cell research. But [the campaign needs] a more concerted effort from Obama to convince socially liberal constituencies (such as single women or infrequent churchgoers) that McCain and Palin don’t share their values.
In fact, there is actually an even an broader group who may be an even more important target in the next six weeks — not just the members of specific, relatively liberal constituencies but the much wider swath of reasonably thoughtful, middle of the road voters who have not voted Democratic in recent years but who deeply desire a higher, more intelligent level and quality of political leadership than the myopically partisan and ideologically driven Bush administration has provided.
McCain has utterly abandoned these voters in this campaign – both with his cynically dishonest advertising that literally insults their intelligence and with his choice of a running mate whose function is to play the role of a Rush Limbaugh attack dog on the campaign trail rather than demonstrate any capacity to be a potential leader of the Republic.
In the long run there is no question that Democrats must develop a strategy for winning a substantial group of working class voters if they wish to create an enduring Democratic majority. But, in the next six weeks, it may be that the heaviest emphasis should be put on winning the growing number of thoughtful middle of the road voters who were initially attracted to John McCain but who are increasingly appalled by the kind campaign he has chosen to run.