Politics & Policy

Middle-Class Blues

The Dems are missing a key constituency.

You wouldn’t know it from reading the mainstream media, but Democrats are plagued by middle-class blues. Despite John Kerry and others courting them with populist rhetoric and targeted get-out-the-vote efforts, large majorities of middle-class voters chose President Bush and congressional Republicans in last fall’s elections. While a little political Prozac may be required, some believe Democrats need stronger medicine to overcome an even more serious malady–denial about their standing with the bourgeoisie.

So says a recent study by a group called “Third Way,” based on 2004 exit-poll data from the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut. Interestingly, Third Way is not a Republican-leaning group crowing about the GOP conquests in the 2004 election. No, instead it’s a “non-partisan not-for-profit strategic advocacy organization devoted to modernizing the progressive cause.” Or in the words of a former Democratic Hill aide who knows it well, “an organization devoted to moderating the Democratic party and saving it from extinction.”

Despite all the time, energy, and rhetoric Democrats spend trying to curry favor with “middle class” voters, their efforts are falling flat. With a couple of exceptions, instead of mining a Democratic electoral mother-lode, these voters delivered landslide margins to President Bush and congressional Republicans. For example, the report concludes that “George W. Bush defeated John Kerry by 22-points among middle class whites with incomes between $30,000 and $75,000.” House Republicans won the same income group by 19 points.

Republican support among lower-middle-class white voters continued down the income scale more than suggested by conventional wisdom. The report says “The economic tipping point–the household income level at which whites were more likely to vote for Republicans than Democrats–was $23,700.” Middle-class black voters, on the other hand, voted overwhelmingly for Democrats (by a nine to one margin)–a spread so large, according to the report, it “masked the enormous deficit Democrats faced with other middle income demographic groups.”

Two other conclusions in the report could send Democrats into a catatonic state. First, Third Way finds, “A rapidly growing Hispanic middle class is leaving the Democratic Party.” And, “The entrance of married women into the middle class led to a dramatic increase in Republican support.”

After all the debate about the extent of Republican gains among Hispanics, the Third Way report offers a somewhat different perspective, one focusing on income groups. For example, Hispanics become more apt to vote Republican as they move up the income scale. And the Hispanic population is not only growing, but it is becoming more affluent. And the more affluent Hispanics become . . . you guessed it–time for more political Prozac for the Democrats.

Black voting patterns may offer one consolation to Democrats in the report. Unlike whites, who voted Republican until far down the income ladder, or Hispanics, who exhibit the classical socioeconomic-status voting model (the wealthier you are, the more likely you vote Republican) blacks are solidly Democrat irrespective of income.

Moderate Democrats will try to use the report to convince others in their party to alter their message and policies–but there’s skepticism that the mainstream Democrats will listen. “There’s a sense that voters agree with us on more issues, like health care, education, and the economy,” a Democrat familiar with the report told me. “The problem is, on the issues the electorate actually votes on, like values and national security, they support the Republicans.”

One moderate Democrat familiar with the report said the reaction in the party is like “an alcoholic that hasn’t hit bottom yet.” “They can’t seem to figure out that we have to change the way lower- to middle-class Americans think about us–that takes more than just tweaking the message.”

The Third Way study is consistent with some of the major findings in the Pew Research Center’s 2005 Political Typology. Lower-to-middle-income who voters supported Republicans–the so called Pro-government conservatives in the Pew study–are optimistic and positive–and clearly don’t have the blues. They responded favorably to the president’s message of growth, hope, and opportunity. Disaffected Democrats (another Pew typology) are more pessimistic and cynical. This bifurcation–an optimistic belief in one’s ability to get ahead versus a more negative view of the future–was a major distinguishing variable in this past election with President Bush capturing the majority of these more optimistic voters, while the pessimists chose Kerry–another indication the Democrats are singing the blues.

While the media wants to write a narrative about President Bush’s “stalled agenda” in Congress or his premature lame-duck status, Democrats may have bigger problems. Finding a message and agenda to combat Republican gains among Hispanics, working women, and middle-class whites may take some tough medicine. But the drug to cure denial hasn’t been created yet.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of research and policy at the Dutko Group Companies and a frequent NRO contributor. An employee at Dutko does some consulting work for Third Way, but neither Andres nor his firm has a relationship with Third Way and the views expressed here are his own.

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