Though it doesn’t provide a unified field theory suggested by the title, Matthew Cooper’s Newsweek cover story “Why Working-Class White Men Make Democrats Nervous” provides a number of insights about Democratic hopes for getting a larger share of the votes of white working-class males.
Much of Cooper’s article is historical review — the emergence and staying power of the Reagan Democrats. Mining the theme of “painful estrangement between working-class white men and the Democratic Party, Cooper notes,
…The white working-class percentage of the electorate may be on the decline, but white working-class men remain a voting bloc neither party can afford to ignore…Since 2000, white working-class men have become so estranged from the party of the New Deal that in some states Obama won only 10 percent of their vote. (Overall, about a third of white working-class men gave Obama their support.)
In the 2012 election, Obama attracted fewer white voters than any Democratic candidate since the 1960s. And in the subset of working-class white men, he lost by a 31-point margin. But because noncollege whites have become an ever smaller part of the pie, Obama was able to win the election. Noncollege whites of both sexes constituted half of Clinton’s electoral strength in 1992, but made up only a quarter of Obama’s support in 2012.
More often, however, it is in the non-presidental election years that white working-class males exert disproportionate influence at the polls:
…This year the impact of white working-class voters looks likely to be amplified. In presidential voting years, minority voters come out in bigger numbers, diluting the impact of white working-class voters who may constitute a third of the electorate in an off year but only a quarter in a presidential election year.
…If the prospect of higher white-working-class turnout wasn’t bad enough for Democrats this fall, the Senate battleground states–Louisiana, Montana, Kentucky, Arkansas, West Virginia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, and Michigan–are thick with working-class whites…in some states, especially in the upper Midwest and Northeast, Democrats have reduced their losses to the point where they can win states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania because they lose noncollege white voters by a smaller margin.
Citing an unspecified poll which indicates that 56 percent of “noncollege white men” say that the poor have an easy life, Cooper notes that 62 percent of them believe the government should do less for the poor. He quotes Ronald Brownstein’s observation that “once their income started declining, they became very receptive to Republican arguments that [the government was] taking your money and giving it to others…”
Cooper cites regional differences influencing white working-class votes:
Working-class whites in the South are much more estranged from the Democratic Party. In Alabama, Obama got only 11 percent of the noncollege white vote and 10 percent in Mississippi. In Ohio, less fundamentalist and more unionized, Obama was able to pull about 42 percent of the vote of noncollege whites and 43 percent in Pennsylvania, which isn’t ideal for Democrats but is enough–combined with their other loyal groups–to win elections. An even closer parsing of data shows how the collapse of Democratic support among white working-class voters extends beyond the South to the mountain West and Plains States. The president garnered a majority in Maine and Vermont. (If only white men could vote nationwide, Obama would have won just Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington.)
Democrats are holding their own at levels better than expected in recent polling on midterm battleground state-wide races. But it’s unclear whether they are gaining any ground with white working-class males.
Hillary Clinton did better than Obama with working-class whites in her 2008 presidential campaign. However, “a new Quinnipiac University poll…shows her with only 27 percent of the white noncollege male vote–behind even Obama’s 31 percent.” In addition, “Hillary wouldn’t need to win these voters; she would only have to stop the hemorrhaging of them to the Republicans. “She’s not going to carry [white] noncollege voters. It’s not like they have to get these voters to love them,” says Ruy Teixeira, author of several books on how the white working-class votes. “You still need to do better than a catastrophic loss. There’s a group in the middle that’s willing to listen.”
Looking toward the future, Cooper suggests:
The greatest opportunities for Democrats to regain the initiative with white working-class men will probably come with a more full-throated economic message–one less about fairness, which working-class white men are more likely to see as a giveaway to the poor, and more about helping them recover their dignity, whether it’s through defending old-school entitlements like Social Security and Medicare or taking a tougher stance on the wolves of Wall Street.
He could have added affordable higher education for their kids, enhanced protection from medical catastrophes, restoring unions, and raising taxes on the rich, all of which are extremely weak spots for Republican candidates. Further, notes Cooper,
Andrew Levison, author of The White Working Class Today: Who They Are, How They Think, and How Progressives Can Regain Their Support, shares Greenberg’s view about how many persuadable working-class voters remain. But he thinks a populist appeal isn’t enough. He also notes that Democrats, let alone unions, are few and far between in many towns and a Fox News cocoon fills the void, while the Republican Party is a living presence. “It goes back to the loss of Democratic machines and institutions,” he says.
The quickening demographic transformation now underway all across America is a huge asset for Democrats. But rebuilding and recrafting the ‘machines and institutions’ that help restore dignity and opportunity to white working-class males is a pivotal commitment that will enable Democrats to get a larger share of their votes — and secure a stable majority coalition that can move America forward.