In the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat, many on the right, from Charles Krauthammer to Sean Hannity, have argued that Republican resistance to amnesty for illegal immigrants imperils the party’s standing with “Hispanics.” Simply grant an amnesty, they say, keep every other policy the same, and Republicans will sweep to victory in 2016. However, it could just as easily be argued that class contributed more than ethnicity to Romney’s defeat. According to exit polls, Romney improved on John McCain’s national performance among households making under $30,000 a year and over $50,000 a year (though he still decisively lost those making under $30,000 a year). However, for those households making between $30,000 and $49,999, he underperformed: McCain lost those voters by twelve points, while Romney lost them by 15. Moreover, because of the economic travails of the past four years, members of those working-class/lower-middle-class households rose from 19 percent of the electorate in 2008 to 21 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, members of households making under $30,000 a year rose from 18 percent of voters to 20 percent of voters. So the income segments of the electorate in which Republicans perform worse have been growing, and, among those on the economic edge, Republican electoral performance is declining.
This trend was exaggerated in many swing states. In New Hampshire, Obama went from winning the $30,000–$49,999 demographic by three points in 2008 to winning it by 21 in 2012. In Ohio, the president went from an 8-point margin of victory to a 12-point one in that demographic. In Virginia, his margin went from ten points to 22; in Colorado, from three points to 23. In Nevada, McCain lost that economic category by 18, but Romney lost it by 36, and, in Pennsylvania, the gap between Obama and his Republican opponent grew from 17 to 23 points. And not all these changes can be traced to changes in the ethnic composition of the electorate. In Virginia, for example, the Hispanic portion of the vote remained the same, as did the president’s victory margin among Hispanics, but Romney still lost considerable ground among working-class voters.
Romney’s underperforming McCain among the working class is probably what tipped the scales in many states. If Romney had simply equaled McCain’s margin of loss among those households making between $30,000 and $49,999, he would probably have won (or had results too close to call in) Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado. Nevada and New Hampshire could have been within reach. That would have brought Romney’s total to 256 electoral votes. If he had not almost doubled McCain’s margin of loss among voters from households making under $30,000 in Pennsylvania (he lost this group by 50 points instead of 34) , the Keystone State would have been in play. In that case, Romney would have been within reach of the presidency.
Comparing the numbers of today with those of 2004 is instructive. While Romney lost households making between $30,000 and $49,999 by 15 points, George W. Bush lost them by only 1 point in 2004. Obama won voters from households making under $100,000 by ten points in 2012; Kerry won them by 1 point in 2004. In most of the battleground states, Kerry eked out a narrow margin of victory among those households making between $30,000 and $49,999; by 2008, Obama was scoring blowouts in that demographic. For example, Bush won it by three points in Pennsylvania in 2004, but Obama won it by 17 points in 2008 and 23 points in 2012. If Romney had pulled even somewhat near Bush’s 2004 performance among voters making under $50,000, he would be president-elect at this moment.
Granted, inflation means that $30,000 was worth more in 2004 than it is today, and therefore this category represents a poorer demographic now, but the changes in voting patterns are still striking. The 20-point sea change in Pennsylvania working-class support between 2004 and 2008 cannot simply be chalked up to inflation or to a change in ethnic composition. Nor can Romney’s poor performance with the working class be attributed entirely to the president’s Bain attacks: The biggest Republican drop among the working class occurred in many states between 2004 and 2008.
The Republican shortfall with the working class in 2012 was due not simply to the nominee’s personal background but to wider issues with Republican policies. In the wake of a decade of lost economic ground and the near-meltdown of 2008, many non-affluent voters seem to have a deep distrust of the ability of Republican policies to work for them. Romney’s poor showing among this demographic underlines the fact that Republicans have not yet found an antidote to this distrust. Further tax cuts will not counter it, nor will promises to end Obamacare. As Ross Douthat suggested the other day, the concerns of average Americans are not the same today as they were in 1979, so Republican policies will have to change with them. By the end of the campaign, Governor Romney was beginning to tout a more forward-looking economic message, one that emphasized industrial renewal, energy development, and middle-class restoration. It was this message that made the election as close as it became on November 6.
Moving economic discussions beyond a fetishization of tax cuts need not be a surrender to the Left. There are, after all, authentically conservative responses to financial consolidation, deindustrialization, escalating health-care costs, soaring energy prices, and middle-class decline. It seems clear that, if Republicans cannot craft a message and a policy platform that speak to the needs of many in the middle and working classes, their ability to form a national governing coalition will remain in doubt. (It’s worth noting that Democrats may even have won a majority of the aggregate popular vote for the House.)
What does not seem so clear, however, is how an expansive legalization of current illegal workers, and the new wave of illegal labor such a legalization would be likely to initiate, could improve the economic prospects of the working class or win them over to the Republican side. There might be other reasons to support an amnesty for illegal immigrants, but hopes that such an amnesty will be an electoral panacea are misguided. Perhaps the most promising strategy for winning over native-born and immigrant voters alike would be for Republicans to put forward policies that speak to the needs of the vast economic middle and of economic strivers of all income levels.
— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.