Obama and the White Working Class
Bill Galston follows up on his excellent essay on “Colorado vs. Ohio.” He writes in part:
Let’s be clear about what’s at issue in this debate. In a post-election analysis published in TNR last November 5, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin (two thinkers not exactly opposed to the “new majority” thesis) pointed out that Democratic reverses among white working-class voters were a major contributor to the 2010 Republican avalanche:
“The most significant shift against the Democrats occurred among the white working class—defined here as whites without a four-year college degree. Congressional Democrats lost this group by 10 points in both 2006 and 2008. Yet this deficit ballooned to 29 points in 2010—a deficit even larger than the 22 point margin Democrats suffered in 1994.”
How threatening is that margin? According to an analysis by Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz, Al Gore lost the white working class vote by 17 points, and John Kerry lost it by 23. Obama did better than Kerry, holding the gap to 18 points, which helped boost him to victory throughout the Midwest. Bottom line: Absent an even larger turnout from “new majority” voters than we saw in 2008, there’s no way that Obama can prevail in 2012 without doing much better among white working-class voters than Democrats did last year.
What will that take? Consider an analogy from the other side of the aisle. For the foreseeable future, Republicans will not win a majority of the Hispanic vote. But it matters a lot whether they lose Hispanics by less than 20 points (as Bush did in 2004) or 38 points (McCain in 2008). The difference was the widespread perception that Bush had been an inclusive governor and as president was sympathetic to comprehensive immigration reform.
What is the equivalent for the white working class, which gave as much support to Obama as they did to Gore, and more than they had given to either Kerry or Dukakis? While I advanced some tentative proposals in my previous piece, I don’t want to pretend to more certainty than I have. But one thing seems clear: Right now, the white working class feels left out—not just economically, but also culturally. It doesn’t have to be that way. Bill Clinton figured out how to build a coalition that included them alongside the groups that had risen to power in the Democratic Party since 1972, and he was rewarded with a plurality of their vote in both 1992 and 1996.