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.
The labor economist Stephen Rose offered a more illuminating analysis in a 2006 essay. Rather than focus on income in any given year, an approach that treats graduate students as members of the non-working poor, Rose looked at households’ average income over a 15-year period. He found that the fraction of adults between the ages of 26 and 59 with a direct material interest in programs for the poor is no more than 23 percent, smaller than is commonly understood.
That fraction may help explain why white voters without college degrees — a definition of the white working class that has been embraced by many political scientists — have grown more likely to vote for Republicans, most markedly in the South, not coincidentally home to some of the country’s lowest-cost metropolitan areas. If we assume that these downscale Republicans don’t look to government for their economic security, at least until retirement, it is easy to understand why they feel free to vote according to their values. They may well resist tax increases designed to pay for programs for other people, especially those seen as undeserving.
Over time Republicans have become ever more reliant on these voters. Exit pollsters classify voters by the last level of formal schooling they received. In 1992, Republican congressional candidates did seven points better among college graduates than among voters who had attended college but not received a degree, and did twelve points better among college grads than among voters who had earned high-school degrees but not attended college at all. These were typical results for the period: The 1996 differentials were the same. But they are narrower now. In the 2010 elections, Republican congressional candidates did only five points better among college grads than among voters with some college education, and only six points better among college grads than among just-high-school grads. Republicans actually do better among white voters without college degrees than among white college graduates; in 2010 they won the white college vote by 19 points and the white non-college vote by 30.
All educational groups swung away from the Republicans between 2004 and 2008 and then back toward them in 2010. But the swings were a little stronger among voters with less formal schooling. Republican congressional candidates did three points better among holders of post-graduate degrees in 2010 than they had done in 2008. They did ten points better among college grads, nine points better among voters with some college, and nine points better among high-school graduates. Multiply these numbers by the percentage of the electorate represented by each group, and Republican gains among voters without college degrees accounted for 4 percent of all votes cast, while gains among voters with college degrees accounted for 3.6 percent. Since these groups were each roughly half the electorate, voters with less formal schooling accounted for a disproportionate share of Republican gains.
The data suggest that conservatives ought to focus more intently on devising an agenda that addresses the concerns of lower-middle-class voters. Formulating such an agenda would have three advantages.
First, it would help the Republicans to keep and build on their existing working-class vote, which, as we have seen, is especially likely to swing between the parties. Second, it would indirectly help Republicans win upper-middle-class votes. Bereft of a policy agenda that appeals to lower-middle-class voters, Republicans often seek their votes using a cultural message that sounds strident and anti-intellectual to college-educated voters. If Republicans are perceived to be dividing voters into two categories, “real Americans” and “latte-sippers,” voters who fall in the second group understandably recoil. Third, such an agenda might help Republicans make modest inroads among working-class Hispanic voters and even black voters — at least among the considerable number of these voters who make political decisions based on pocketbook concerns rather than identity politics.
For more than 30 years, Republicans have considered taxes to be their most politically potent domestic issue. It would be more accurate to say that middle-class taxes have been their top issue. The Republicans were to the Democrats’ right on middle-class taxes in six of the last eight presidential elections — and won five of them. Democrats won both of the elections in which there was no difference between the parties on middle-class taxes. If in 2012 the difference on taxes between the parties is that Republicans want to extend all tax cuts and Democrats want only to extend middle-class tax cuts — so that the parties offer the middle class the same deal on taxes — Republicans will have a hard time winning. Still worse would be for the Republicans to adopt a tax-reform plan that raises taxes on middle-class voters. Paul Ryan’s plan, while laudable in many respects, poses this danger.
The tax that falls most heavily on lower-middle-class voters is the payroll tax. Cutting any tax is a tough proposition in today’s fiscal circumstances. But a tax reform that reduces the burden of payroll taxes on young working-class voters who are trying to start families is well within reach: It would merely require increasing the child tax credit and applying it against both income and payroll taxes, replacing the lost revenue by reducing tax breaks. Among the most appealing targets are the state-and-local-tax deduction and the mortgage-interest deduction, both of which mainly benefit affluent households in high-cost, high-tax states.
Such a reform would provide tangible assistance to many lower-middle-class voters — either now or prospectively, when they start families. The vast bulk of parents who pay enough in taxes for a child credit to be worth a significant amount of money are married, and supporting these couples might in a small way address one of the most troubling developments in lower-middle-class life: the ongoing collapse of marriage within that demographic, which is bad for our society and for conservative politicians.
The economic circumstances of these voters should also inform the Republican approach to health care. It is already clear that Obamacare will prove far more expensive than advertised. In devising its cost projections, the Congressional Budget Office assumed that unemployment would average 5.6 percent between 2012 and 2015, and that it would fall to 7.7 percent next year, numbers that seem decidedly optimistic. If unemployment ends up being higher, the new health-care entitlement will force steep tax increases at all levels of government, and not just for high-earners. This will give Republicans an opening to advance a repeal-and-replace agenda, provided the “replace” part delivers a more cost-effective health-care system.
Yet it is also true that the most potent Republican political argument against Obamacare was that the president and his allies were proposing to cut Medicare to pay for a new entitlement. Rather awkwardly, small-government conservatives found themselves defending America’s most ruinously expensive entitlement, largely because their constituents were so committed to its survival. Now, as conservatives struggle to contain the cost of Medicare, they will have to convince lower-middle-class voters that they intend to reform the program to protect future generations — and not to gut it out of ideological zeal.
Some conservatives are making the right moves at the state level. Govs. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Chris Christie of New Jersey have successfully used the language of shared sacrifice to press for difficult structural reforms, always careful to emphasize that the short-term pain will be accompanied by long-term gain.
Working-class voters, who are increasingly important to the GOP, have different priorities and sensibilities than other voters. They’re not necessarily unalterably opposed to free trade and entitlement reform, but they need reassurance that they’re not going to be left behind. Representing all elements of this new Republican coalition will be difficult. But there is a payoff: The politician who can do it will be well positioned to secure a national majority.
– Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review. Reihan Salam is a policy adviser at Economics 21. This article originally appeared in the December 31, 2010, issue of National Review.