Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal op-ed by a potential GOP presidential candidate, Ohio senator Rob Portman, brings to mind a quote from the movie Field of Dreams. At the end of the movie, Ray Kinsella angrily confronts the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson when the player refuses to let Ray come with him. “What’s in it for me?” Kinsella cries. I fear that will be the reaction among working-class whites in Ohio and other industrial Midwest states if the agenda the senator lays out is all that’s on offer in 2016.
According to exit polls, whites without a college degree easily remain the largest single voting bloc in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio. Unlike their Southern brethren, these voters gave President Obama significant support, between 42 and 50 percent, in 2012. If these blue-collar white voters had just given the president the same share as their neighbors in Indiana (37 percent), Mitt Romney would have carried all three states.
Moreover, voters working in the private sector earning above middle-class wages already vote Republican in these Midwestern states. In Wisconsin, Romney carried the four counties with median incomes above $60,000 with between 55 and 70 percent of the vote. In the senator’s native Ohio, Romney carried similar counties by nearly identical margins, getting between 55 and 69 percent. Once one factors out the large numbers of college-educated, middle-income whites who belong to public-sector unions (teachers, social workers, bureaucrats) who are likely to remain Democratic voters, it’s obvious there are not very many Midwestern votes left for the GOP to get by appealing to people who are already economic winners.
The non-college-educated white faces very different challenges in today’s economy than these more comfortable voters. In Ohio, over 20 percent of private-sector jobs are in low-skilled positions such as cashier or stock boy. Many of these people earn so little they already qualify for food stamps. On average they earn less than $10 an hour, not enough to pull a family of three above the poverty line working full-time. Even those doing well by local standards are struggling to keep afloat. To put their lives in perspective, a person earning double the minimum wage, or roughly a $15 an hour, would earn a bit more than $31,000 a year working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. That’s less than 138 percent of the federal poverty limit for a family of four, allowing a household earning that income to qualify for Medicaid under Ohio’s expansion.
Voters like these would see very little “in it for them” in the senator’s op-ed, at least in the short term. Very few of these voters pay federal income tax already because of the EITC and the child tax credit. Those that do are largely in the 10 percent bracket. They simply won’t benefit much if at all from rate cuts, and might be hurt if features of the tax code they depend on are part of the “broadening of the base.”
These voters are also likely to be concerned about increasing the age at which full Social Security and Medicare benefits can be obtained and about the senator’s statement that the typical couple gets nearly three times as much in Medicare benefits as they pay in. This is especially the case for typical Ohio working-class whites, as they earn much less than the typical national family and hence get much greater financial benefits from the existing program. It would be fairly easy, without more, for Democrats to characterize the senator as caring more about saving money than saving lives.
This caricature could carry particular weight among these voters because of the salient feature of comprehensive tax reform, lowering the top rate. Currently the top rate kicks in for families earning a shade more than $450,000 a year in taxable income, or about what Midwest working-class families will take 10 to 20 years to earn. They already see the Republican party as favoring the rich, and already have seen that lowering the top rate during the Bush presidency did not appreciably increase their family income. Again, it would be easy for Democrats to caricature the senator as thinking America’s economy is suffering because the middle class spends too much and the upper classes get too little.
It thus would be quite easy to portray someone running on this agenda and no more as a person out of touch who doesn’t care about people like them. That perception was what killed Governor Romney: He lost nationally by 63 points among the 21 percent of Americans who thought caring about people like them was the most important presidential characteristic. In Ohio the margin was even worse: Romney lost by 69 points among the 22 percent who valued caring above all else.
Other data from the Ohio exit poll should give one pause. Romney won 96–4 among Ohio voters who saw him as favoring the middle class. But they were only 35 percent of the electorate. Fifty-six percent saw him as favoring the rich, and they voted for President Obama by 75 points, 87–12. This factor more than anything else is probably why the governor lost over a quarter of the 56 percent of Ohio voters who believed the government is already doing too much.
These data don’t even account for the fact that turnout was down in Ohio, alone among the battleground states. Over 131,000 fewer Ohioans voted in 2012 than voted in 2008, and the relative drop was significantly larger in counties with large percentages of white working-class voters.
Similar turnout declines in white working-class areas occurred throughout the country in non-battleground states. Sean Trende has written the most detailed analyses of this, noting that these areas also tended to back the economically populist Ross Perot in 1992. Perhaps this turnout decline was due to the fact that Governor Romney was a particularly unpersuasive messenger, but perhaps it was also because of the message.
There’s lots that the senator and other Republican candidates can do to overcome this caricature. They could note that every Republican governor in a battleground or potential swing state has endorsed some form of Medicaid expansion or otherwise increased government-funded insurance coverage, something the Hatch-Coburn-Burr bill also does. They could note that Michigan governor Rick Snyder has increased his state’s minimum wage to over $9 an hour, or they could follow Senator Marco Rubio in endorsing some form of wage subsidy for low-income workers as an alternative. Instead of characterizing people who take food stamps or are tempted to apply for disability insurance as moochers and slackers, they could take note of how the eligibility provisions of these programs are peculiarly attractive for low-skilled workers down on their luck and devise reforms that encourage and offer financial support for people to stay in the workforce. That’s what Republicans did in the 1996 welfare reform that all factions in the party hold up as a great success and which Senator Portman voted for as a member of the House.
Perhaps I am wrong about the politics of this agenda standing alone. Perhaps I should have focused on a more famous quote from the movie: If we build it, they will come. But I am much more sanguine about the party’s chances to regain the White House in 2016 if we seek to ease working-class voters’ pain while we transition to a new, vibrant economy for all.
— Henry Olsen is senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.