Note: this item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on March 17, 2009
If there is one topic that Democrats come back to over and over in electoral analysis, it’s the party’s persistantly weak performance in recene years among non-college-educated white voters, a.k.a., the White Working Class. And there are some obvious reasons for this debate. As Ruy Teixeira’s new study for CAP (“New Progressive America“), Democratic weakness among WWC voters persisted in 2008, although the impact was mitigated by the steady decline in that demographic’s share of the electorate. And that bugs Democrats a lot, since these are voters who should be (and in opinion if not sometimes in voting behavior actually are) responsive to the progressive economic message. There’s even a moral argument that a progressive party which struggles to connect with working-class voters isn’t adequately representing a core constituency.
But as this debate continues, a parallel debate is developing on the other side of the partisan divide, as some Republicans are beginning to argue against the targeting of WWC voters, urging instead a refocus on the upscale voters who have been sharply trending towards Democrats over the last 20 years. In some respects, this point-of-view is the direct corollary of conservative attacks on Obama’s tax policies; they sense that many upscale voters are ready to vote Republican, and perhaps even join the Tea Party “movement,” in reaction to Obama’s outrageous advocacy of top marginal rates on high-earners that resemble those of the bad old 1990s.
But there are some interesting generational arguments as well. Michael Barone suggests, mainly from inferences rather than hard data, that younger WWC voters are pretty much checking out and can’t be relied upon in the future to support the GOP in the numbers represented by their parents. (In fact, there is tantalizing evidence that Obama may have done surprisingly well among under-30 WWC voters in 2008, which Andrew Levison wrote about in a TDS White Paper in December).
Barone cites and at least tentatively endorses another theory, one advanced by David Frum in reaction to the news that single mom Bristol Palin ain’t getting hitched any time soon. Frum contends that young WWC voters don’t exhibit the sturdy folk virtues of their parents, and thus won’t be attracted to the cultural conservatism of the GOP:
Many conservatives carry in their heads a mental image of American society that’s a generation out of date. They imagine the existence of a huge class of socially conservative downscale voters, ready to vote Republican because of abortion and gay marriage.
The story of Bristol Palin should help puncture this illusion.
Take a look at Table A17 in this report by the Educational Testing Service. Of children born to white women with a college degree, only 8% were born out of wedlock. But of children born to white women who did not finish college, 28% were born outside of marriage. Of children born to white women who stopped their education after high school, 42.1% were out of wedlock. And of births to white women like Bristol Palin, who have not completed high school, almost 61% were out of wedlock.
Thus, as Barone puts it in his gloss on Frum’s argument, young WWC Americans are embracing “chaotic and undisciplined” lifestyles that aren’t conducive to GOP voting behavior.
This”forget about the white trash” dismissal of future WWC voters has pretty significant strategic implications for those GOPers who adopt it. And it exposes a dilemma in conservative message development that became obvious during the 2008 campaign, and is becoming even clearer today. In retrospect, as some of us pointed out at the time, the whole Joe the Plumber phenomenon in the McCain-Palin campaign was an effort to put a WWC face on an argument over tax policy that really affected only high-income voters.
The same conflict is even more evident in the current disagreement among conservatives about whether to go after Obama for his “socialist” and “redistributist” economic policies that threaten to destroy the “productive” upper class, or instead to go populist with an attack on bailouts of Wall Street firms, while stressing Obama’s alleged cultural radicalism. And even those who attack bailouts on laissez-faire grounds, like Joe the Plumber’s replacement, CNBC “reporter” Rick Santelli, don’t much like “demagoguery” about the AIG bonuses (which, after all, benefit the very people he has defended as victims of lower-class perfidy).
This conflict is complicated, of course, by the fact that upper-income voters do not proportionately embrace the cultural conservatism that’s been a big factor in WWC Republican voting, and that Frum and Barone suspect the WWC is beginning to abandon, as evidenced in the marital data and symbolized by the devolution of the Palin family.
It’s all pretty fascinating as a sign of fault lines in the GOP and the conservative movement that will probably become more apparent in days to come. And these fault lines have obvious implications for the putative front-runner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, Bristol Palin’s mother.
We Democrats, of course, would like nothing better than a GOP abandonment of non-college-educated voters as a target. Whatever well-heeled conservatives think of their “chaotic and undisciplined” lifestyles, we’ll take ’em.