What’s up with the white-working-class vote? For years, the horny-handed blue-collar worker was the star of the New Deal Democratic coalition. It was for him, and his wife and family, that Democrats taxed the rich, invented Social Security, and supported militant labor unions.
Well, that was then, and this is now. White working-class voters — or white voters without college degrees, the exit-poll group most closely approximating them — are now a mainstay of the Republican coalition.
Ronald Brownstein, a clear-sighted and diligent analyst of demographic voting data, provided some useful perspective in his most recent National Journal column. His bottom line is that in order to win this year, Mitt Romney must capture two-thirds of white non-college voters — about the same percentage that voted for Ronald Reagan in his 1984 landslide reelection.
The reason Romney must do so well is that white non-college voters are a smaller part of the electorate now than they were then. In 1984, they constituted 61 percent of all voters. In 2008, they constituted 39 percent.
The good news for Romney is that Republicans have been running near these levels for some time. In 2008, the white non-college vote went 58 to 40 percent for John McCain. In 2010, the white non-college vote for the House of Representatives was 63 to 33 percent Republican. Current polling shows Obama at about 33 percent among this group.
Another way to look at it is that, in 1984, white non-college voters came in 7 percentage points more Republican than the national average. In 2008 and 2010, they came in 11 to 12 percentage points more Republican than average.
Such data tends to undercut the theory, first advanced by Ruy Teixeira and John Judis in their 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority, that as minorities and working women became a larger share of the electorate, Democrats could command majorities for years to come.
That was true in some years, such as 2006 and 2008, but not in others, such as 2009 and 2010. Then it was counterbalanced by heavy Republican margins among white non-college voters.
As a majority group — 86 percent of voters in 1940 and 61 percent in 1984 — white non-college voters could not be ignored by either party. Party platforms and candidate rhetoric were aimed at them. A party that failed to win over this group, such as the Democratic party in 1984, would suffer landslide defeat.
Also, voters who are conscious that they are part of a group that accounts for a large majority of the electorate will be open to appeals from both parties. They can be confident that both parties, over time, will be looking for their votes.
Things operate differently with groups that are self-conscious minorities. One party may antagonize them in search of votes from other groups. Democrats’ efforts to woo blacks and liberal, college-educated whites turned off the white working class in the 1980s.