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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

TDS Strategy Memo: The White Working Class is a Decisive Voting Group in 2012 – and Most of What You Read About Their Political Attitudes Will Be Completely Wrong.

As Election Day 2012 draws near it will become more and more apparent that the white working class is a pivotal group whose electoral choice will largely determine the outcome. If the percentage of white working class support for Obama remains where it is today, in the low to mid 30’s, an Obama victory will be almost impossible. If Obama’s level of support rises reasonably close the percentage he received in 2008, Obama’s victory becomes almost certain. As a result, in the weeks between now and November 2nd there will be a huge outpouring of analyses seeking to explain the opinions and likely electoral choices of white working class voters.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of these analyses will be fundamentally wrong.
The reason is simple. The conventional way of examining the opinions of white working class voters – a group that is generally defined as those with just a high school diploma or those who have less than a four year college education — is to note their views on a variety of subjects and then compare those opinions with the opinions of white voters who have graduated college or gone on to post-graduate educations.
The results are predictable. Aside from certain “pockets” of populist views on subjects like corporations, Wall Street and profits, across a wide range of issues white working class voters’ opinions consistently appear to be more conservative than the more educated. On this basis, analysts and commentators invariably proceed to create a composite stereotype – a “typical” white worker who is significantly more conservative than his more educated counterparts across a wide range of issues. Based on this political composite columnists and pundits then quickly conclude that winning the support of this typical white working class voter requires “moving to the right” and appealing to his or her basically conservative views.
This cliché of “the typical white worker as a conservative” has a long history in political thinking. In its modern form it first appeared in 1970 in Scammon and Wattenberg’s book, The Real Majority in which a fictional 40 year old machinist from Ohio took his place alongside similar clichés about “conservative Hard Hats” and the TV character of Archie Bunker. Since that time it has survived largely unchanged as “the Joe Six-Pack vote,” “The Bubba vote”, “the NASCAR vote” and “gun-rack on the pick-up truck vote.”
But on the most basic level, this is simply the wrong way to think about white working class people.
For one thing, very often the differences between more and less educated white voters on specific issues are not large – often as little as 10 or 15%. This kind of difference is simply not enough to justify maintaining a stereotype of one group as being fundamentally more conservative than another. When comparing the views of two different groups of 30 individuals on a particular topic, for example, a 10% difference between the two groups will only represent a difference in the views of three of the 30 individuals. This is hardly enough to reasonably characterize one group as basically “conservative” and the other as “liberal” or “progressive”
Three Kinds of Workers
Far more important, however, is the fact that the stereotype of the “average conservative white worker” fails to capture the most important fact about these voters – that most are not “average.” On the contrary White working class Americans are profoundly split into three distinct groups.
To read the memo, click here

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