Dangerous Disaffection
From the June 6, 2011, issue of NR.


Henry Olsen

It is tempting to dismiss the Republicans’ recent loss in New York’s 26th congressional district. A “tea-party” candidate siphoned off conservative votes, and the Republican did not respond to the Democrat’s Medicare ads until they had already sealed her fate. 

Doing so would be a mistake: Republican Jane Corwin’s defeat in New York is to Republicans what the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts was to Democrats: a warning of impending disaster if the party maintains its course. Democrats in 2010 refused to see this, blaming their loss on poor turnout and a bad candidate. Republicans cannot make the same mistake. And that means the GOP must enroll in a class on the hopes and dreams — and fears and insecurities — of blue-collar white voters.

Political analysts on both sides of the aisle overlook blue-collar whites. But they are a large share of the electorate, about 40 percent. When they coalesce around one party, their preferences shape the election. That’s what happened in 2010. A record 63 percent of blue-collar whites voted Republican in House races in 2010, up from 54 percent in 2008. 

But it isn’t 2010 anymore. NY-26 is a solidly Republican district, and was carried handily by both John McCain and George W. Bush. Corwin’s performance, in comparison, was worst in the working-class areas of the district. But blue-collar voters did not turn out for Democrat Kathy Hochul; instead, they backed faux tea partier Jack Davis, who spent millions of dollars on ads attacking the Republicans for supporting free trade.

It’s not just New York. Blue-collar whites abandoned the GOP or GOP-backed candidate in two recent Wisconsin elections, without third-party spoilers. Blue-collar areas that swung heavily toward Republican Scott Walker in 2010 swung heavily in favor of Democratic or Democratic-backed candidates in the April supreme-court election. This poses a great challenge for Republicans. Non-whites’ increased share of the electorate has left the GOP heavily dependent on substantial majorities among blue-collar whites for even a shot at victory. To win, Republicans have to learn what makes Joe Six-Pack tick.

Some of the answers can be found in a recent Pew poll in which researchers divided voters into eight typologies, each sharing an underlying belief pattern. One of these groups, dubbed the “Disaffecteds,” was 77 percent white and 89 percent without a college degree. Since nearly two-thirds of them are political independents, this group is a distilled example of the blue-collar white swing vote. 

Disaffecteds share base Republicans’ dislike of Obama and negative views about the country’s direction. Obama’s job-approval rating among them is only 28 percent, and only 22 percent say they would reelect him. They view the Republican party favorably and the Democratic party unfavorably by wide margins. Only 14 percent are content with the federal government, and only 19 percent trust the government to do what is right always or most of the time. These assessments suggest that blue-collar whites are clearly opposed to today’s Left.

But being against the Left does not mean that one is for the Right. Comparing Disaffecteds with Staunch Conservatives, the Pew designation for the Republican base, reveals striking differences on fiscal and budgetary issues. Disaffecteds are much more likely to prefer a bigger government with more services and are significantly less likely to cite the deficit as either a top priority or the biggest economic worry. 

Their solution to balancing the deficit is also at odds with that of the Staunch Conservatives. Fifty-nine percent of Staunch Conservatives want to focus on cutting major programs to reduce the deficit; only 17 percent of Disaffecteds do. Only 34 percent of Staunch Conservatives want a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts, compared with 65 percent of Disaffecteds. Most crucially, only 15 percent of Disaffecteds want to cut Social Security or Medicare to reduce the budget deficit, the smallest percentage for any of the Pew typologies — and 11 points lower than Solid Liberals. Given these results, it’s not surprising that blue-collar whites deserted Jane Corwin in droves.

It’s also no surprise that Davis did so well with the trade issue. Disaffecteds were the group most strongly against free trade, saying by a 57–29 margin that free-trade agreements are bad for America. Disaffecteds also have a much more favorable view of labor unions than do Staunch Conservatives, partially explaining the Wisconsin results.