The Republican Class War
From the December 31, 2010, issue of NR


Ramesh Ponnuru

There is now a class divide in the Republican party. Mitt Romney, the leading establishment candidate for the party’s presidential nomination in 2012, draws support from affluent, college-educated Republicans. Voters without college degrees, on the other hand, look more favorably on Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin — the potential candidates who most consistently rail against “elites” and “country-clubbers.”

This division is relatively new to the Republican party. In the past it was the Democrats who were riven by class conflict. In 2008 journalist Ron Brownstein analyzed the primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in terms of a longstanding split between “beer track” and “wine track” Democrats. Downscale Democrats tended to prefer candidates who would fight for their material interests, while upscale Democrats had a more ideological bent.

Perhaps surprisingly, upscale Democrats have been the group most susceptible to soak-the-rich rhetoric in the years since the 2000 presidential election. One reason could be that many of these voters, particularly those living in high-cost metropolitan areas, are more likely to compete for access to various positional goods — e.g., homes in good school districts — with people wealthier than themselves, thus fueling status anxiety. By pledging to protect households earning $250,000 or less from tax increases, the Obama campaign helped cement the Democratic coalition. Obama won the nomination by uniting wine-track voters with African Americans, who typically have favored beer-track candidates.

At the same time, a fissure was opening in the Republican primaries. Romney was a serious contender for the presidential nomination in 2008, but his appeal was confined to people who, like him, occupied the high end of the income spectrum. According to exit polls, in Iowa and Florida he won a plurality only among those voters making more than $100,000 a year. In New Hampshire, the linchpin to his strategy, he won only among voters making more than $150,000. Michigan, where Romney’s father was once governor, was the only contested state where he had broad-based appeal.

The Republican split is a mirror image of the Democratic one. Upscale Republicans resemble downscale Democrats in their pragmatic pursuit of material interests, while downscale Republicans and upscale Democrats appear to be more easily swayed by gestures of ideological solidarity.

This pattern could reflect the fact that downscale Republicans, concentrated in rural and low-cost metropolitan areas, are less dependent on anti-poverty programs than their Democratic counterparts, who are more likely to reside in high-cost metropolitan areas. As political scientist Larry Bartels has observed, Democratic presidential candidates have consistently won roughly half of the vote of white voters in the bottom third of the income distribution. But this is a highly heterogeneous group rather than a real voting bloc: Over a third of these voters are retirees, only a third of them are employed, and only half are over 30 years old.