It is tempting to dismiss the Republicans’ recent loss in New York’s 26th congressional district. A “tea-party” candidate siphoned off conservative votes, and the Republican did not respond to the Democrat’s Medicare ads until they had already sealed her fate.
Doing so would be a mistake: Republican Jane Corwin’s defeat in New York is to Republicans what the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts was to Democrats: a warning of impending disaster if the party maintains its course. Democrats in 2010 refused to see this, blaming their loss on poor turnout and a bad candidate. Republicans cannot make the same mistake. And that means the GOP must enroll in a class on the hopes and dreams — and fears and insecurities — of blue-collar white voters.
Political analysts on both sides of the aisle overlook blue-collar whites. But they are a large share of the electorate, about 40 percent. When they coalesce around one party, their preferences shape the election. That’s what happened in 2010. A record 63 percent of blue-collar whites voted Republican in House races in 2010, up from 54 percent in 2008.
But it isn’t 2010 anymore. NY-26 is a solidly Republican district, and was carried handily by both John McCain and George W. Bush. Corwin’s performance, in comparison, was worst in the working-class areas of the district. But blue-collar voters did not turn out for Democrat Kathy Hochul; instead, they backed faux tea partier Jack Davis, who spent millions of dollars on ads attacking the Republicans for supporting free trade.
It’s not just New York. Blue-collar whites abandoned the GOP or GOP-backed candidate in two recent Wisconsin elections, without third-party spoilers. Blue-collar areas that swung heavily toward Republican Scott Walker in 2010 swung heavily in favor of Democratic or Democratic-backed candidates in the April supreme-court election. This poses a great challenge for Republicans. Non-whites’ increased share of the electorate has left the GOP heavily dependent on substantial majorities among blue-collar whites for even a shot at victory. To win, Republicans have to learn what makes Joe Six-Pack tick.
Some of the answers can be found in a recent Pew poll in which researchers divided voters into eight typologies, each sharing an underlying belief pattern. One of these groups, dubbed the “Disaffecteds,” was 77 percent white and 89 percent without a college degree. Since nearly two-thirds of them are political independents, this group is a distilled example of the blue-collar white swing vote.
Disaffecteds share base Republicans’ dislike of Obama and negative views about the country’s direction. Obama’s job-approval rating among them is only 28 percent, and only 22 percent say they would reelect him. They view the Republican party favorably and the Democratic party unfavorably by wide margins. Only 14 percent are content with the federal government, and only 19 percent trust the government to do what is right always or most of the time. These assessments suggest that blue-collar whites are clearly opposed to today’s Left.
But being against the Left does not mean that one is for the Right. Comparing Disaffecteds with Staunch Conservatives, the Pew designation for the Republican base, reveals striking differences on fiscal and budgetary issues. Disaffecteds are much more likely to prefer a bigger government with more services and are significantly less likely to cite the deficit as either a top priority or the biggest economic worry.
Their solution to balancing the deficit is also at odds with that of the Staunch Conservatives. Fifty-nine percent of Staunch Conservatives want to focus on cutting major programs to reduce the deficit; only 17 percent of Disaffecteds do. Only 34 percent of Staunch Conservatives want a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts, compared with 65 percent of Disaffecteds. Most crucially, only 15 percent of Disaffecteds want to cut Social Security or Medicare to reduce the budget deficit, the smallest percentage for any of the Pew typologies — and 11 points lower than Solid Liberals. Given these results, it’s not surprising that blue-collar whites deserted Jane Corwin in droves.
It’s also no surprise that Davis did so well with the trade issue. Disaffecteds were the group most strongly against free trade, saying by a 57–29 margin that free-trade agreements are bad for America. Disaffecteds also have a much more favorable view of labor unions than do Staunch Conservatives, partially explaining the Wisconsin results.
Republicans who argue that these voters are natural tea partiers are mistaken. The Pew poll finds that while 72 percent of Staunch Conservatives support the Tea Party, only 19 percent of Disaffecteds do. Sixty-seven percent of them have no opinion at all about the Tea Party, the highest of any Pew group.
Those who want to shift focus to foreign affairs, social issues, or Obamacare also find little support in the poll. By wide margins, Disaffecteds join hardline Democrats in believing that the United States should focus more on domestic problems than on taking a leading role in world affairs (73 percent agree with this statement) and believe Obama won’t remove troops from Afghanistan quickly enough (44 percent). They have mixed opinions on gay marriage and abortion, and only 33 percent say Obamacare has had a mostly bad effect on health care.
It’s said that where you stand depends on where you sit, and that is certainly true of blue-collar whites. Their chair in the American social and economic hierarchy is low and wobbly. A majority of Disaffecteds earn less than $30,000 a year, while 44 percent are parents. The recession has hit these people hard; 63 percent say it had a major impact from which they have not yet recovered, and 71 percent had a household member unemployed in the last year. All four sets of responses are the highest among any of the Pew groups.
The Pew poll suggests that Republicans, in the short term, should concentrate their fire on jobs and the economy. Blue-collar whites agree with Republicans on low taxes and opposition to liberalism, and they already hold Obama and Democrats in low esteem. The president and his party will largely be held responsible for the prevailing economic conditions in 2012: Why not simply focus on the attack and worry about the policy aftermath later?
The trouble with this approach is that it has been tried before and has failed. The 2010 contest was the fourth GOP wave election in the last 60 years. In each case, the voters who swung to the GOP were blue-collar whites; in each case, attempts to roll back the welfare state quickly eroded GOP support. GOP establishmentarians who focused only on short-term wins also found that blue-collar loyalties quickly faded away.
If conservatives want to break this cycle and finally reverse the seemingly perpetual growth of government, they must understand how blue-collar voters are different from them. Research shows that blue-collar whites take the political positions they do because of their self-perception. They know they are less skilled than others; this makes them friendlier to protection from competition, whether the competition comes from trade abroad or immigrant workers at home. They depend more on public services to provide public order (which is why they support police so much) and economic stability (which is what middle-class entitlements support). Above all, they are risk-averse and proud. They fear the future as much as or more than they welcome it; one misstep and their whole world can collapse. This means they are wary of sudden change, whether it comes from the left or the right. And their dignity and pride mean they resist attempts to tell them what to do or treat them like pawns in someone else’s game, whether those attempts come from big business, big government, or big anything.
Republicans can begin to garner consistent loyalty from blue-collar whites only if they demonstrate genuine sympathy with them. Republicans cannot reform entitlements if they are seen as motivated by money or as imposing their abstract vision on hard-pressed Americans’ reality. Blue-collar whites need Medicare in their retirement; the Medicare-reform effort must be presented as what it truly is, the way to guarantee that those who need it will have it when they need it.
Republicans must also compare their plan with the president’s non-plan. By failing present any means of saving the program, the president’s budget guarantees that Medicare as we know it cannot continue without crushing tax hikes on the middle class. In short, today it’s the Republicans who can best fulfill Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vision of a thriving, self-reliant, and economically secure middle class.
Ronald Reagan understood all of this decades ago. Even after the Goldwater debacle of 1964, he knew that Americans had voted against Goldwater because he had been cast as a radical. Reagan told the readers of National Review that “human nature resists change and goes over backward to avoid radical change,” and advised: “Time now for the soft sell to prove that our radicalism was an optical illusion.” He spent his entire political career showing how American conservative principles were not scary, but rather the simple, proven ideas that make Americans unique.
Reagan’s rhetoric always made the typical American feel valued and special. It did not emphasize the great entrepreneurs and captains of industry, although Reagan understood how setting them free would benefit America. Instead, he focused in speech after speech on ordinary people who did extraordinary things — the “boys of Pointe-du-Hoc,” the Lenny Skutnicks. It’s a rhetorical approach built on genuine sympathy for the average person.
His vision of a new Republican party included the educated and the uneducated, the working class as well as the upper class. He explained how working-class Democrats and independents could make common cause with traditional Republican supporters to forge a new majority founded on conservative principles, a strategy that carried him to a landslide.
That majority can be reconstructed. Blue-collar whites believe the president and the Democrats do not have their best interests at heart. They want to make common cause with conservatives to save our country. They just need to know that they will be safe on the Republican ship if they come aboard.
— Henry Olsen is a vice president at the American Enterprise Institute and the director of its National Research Initiative. This article originally appeared in the June 6, 2011, issue of National Review.