Thomas B. Edsall’s op-ed, “The Future of the Obama Coalition” in the Sunday New York Times has opened up heated discussions about what Dems should now do about the white working class in terms of the presidential election. Edsall believes that Democratic “operatives” have made their decision:
All pretense of trying to win a majority of the white working class has been effectively jettisoned in favor of cementing a center-left coalition made up, on the one hand, of voters who have gotten ahead on the basis of educational attainment — professors, artists, designers, editors, human resources managers, lawyers, librarians, social workers, teachers and therapists — and a second, substantial constituency of lower-income voters who are disproportionately African-American and Hispanic.
Edsall spotlights what he believes to be the changing strategic orientation of TDS co-editors Stan Greenberg and Ruy Teixeira to bolster his argument:
It is instructive to trace the evolution of a political strategy based on securing this coalition in the writings and comments, over time, of such Democratic analysts as Stanley Greenberg and Ruy Teixeira. Both men were initially determined to win back the white working-class majority, but both currently advocate a revised Democratic alliance in which whites without college degrees are effectively replaced by well-educated socially liberal whites in alliance with the growing ranks of less affluent minority voters, especially Hispanics.
The 2012 approach treats white voters without college degrees as an unattainable cohort. The Democratic goal with these voters is to keep Republican winning margins to manageable levels, in the 12 to 15 percent range, as opposed to the 30-point margin of 2010 — a level at which even solid wins among minorities and other constituencies are not enough to produce Democratic victories.
Noting a shift in the support of white workers from progressive to conservative parties, not just in the U.S., but in industrialized nations in general, Edsall says the goal is now to cut white worker support of Republicans, rather than try to win them for the Democratic nominee. “In order to be re-elected,” writes Edsall, “President Obama must keep his losses among white college graduates to the 4-point margin of 2008 (47-51). Why? Otherwise he will not be able to survive a repetition of 2010, when white working-class voters supported Republican House candidates by a record-setting margin of 63-33.”
Edsall cites a recent memo by Greenberg “that makes no mention of the white working class,” describing instead a “new progressive coalition” made up of “young people, Hispanics, unmarried women, and affluent suburbanites.” He cites Greenberg’s doubts about winning back the ‘Reagan Democrats,’ a concern he and Teixeira both shared as a central priority in the 1990s.
But Edsall appears to be overstating his point about the memo, a section of which says:
Non-college voters across the groups respond in particular to evidence of
strength and conviction. The white non-college-educated voters in these groups
were particularly fed-up with politics altogether. They now say ― “it does not matter
who wins,” even as some are attracted to conservative leaders who show
strong convictions. Re-engaging them will be a difficult project, but it is certainly
possible. More than any other group, these voters are re-engaged when leaders
show strong conviction and say, ―”I’m ready for him to get in there and kick some
Certainly many in the white working-class are increasingly clear that the GOP has little to offer, and, for them a vote for Obama is not out of the question, given the hard-to-justify alternatives. The trick is turning them out.
Edsall nonetheless gives the revised strategy, which was successful in ’06 and ’08, “a 50-50 chance in 2012” and says it’s now all about focusing on states like VA, CO and NH, with their “high percentages of college educated voters.” He lays out two basic scenarios:
One outcome could be a stronger party of the left in national and local elections. An alternate outcome could be exacerbated intra-party conflict between whites, blacks and Hispanics — populations frequently marked by diverging material interests…
The Republicans have unity problems of their own. But Edsall notes that the GOP is more than eager to exploit the fragile tension points of such a new Democratic coalition. Indeed, this may be why most of the GOP presidential candidates (Newt and Perry excepted) are so hot for unbridled immigrant-bashing. But, if that and tax cuts are all they have to offer in terms of economic benefit to white workers a year from now, the GOP may have a tougher sell than President Obama.