How the Demographics of Partisanship Shape Unemployment Policy

I had a brief exchange with a non-hostile left-of-center interlocutor earlier today, and he observed something to the effect of, “Republicans are resisting unemployment insurance extensions despite the fact that much of their base is unemployed.”

This reflects a misconception that merits closer discussion. Though the Democratic and Republican electorates are always shifting, the Pew Research Center’s Political Typology Survey offers a good starting point regarding the demographic composition of the “base” of both parties.

Staunch Conservatives are 9% of the adult population and 11% of registered voters, and 84% identify as Republicans. This group is heavily non-Hispanic white (92%) and male (56%), and 61% are over the age of 50. Only 12% of them live in the Northeast, while 38% live in the South, 26% live in the Midwest, and 24% live in the West. Only 15% earn less than $30,000 a year while 33% earn over $75,000, which is particularly interesting given that this group is the most heavily skewed towards over-65s (28%).

Main Street Republicans, concentrated in the South (40%) and Midwest (27%), are 11% of the population and 14% of registered voters. A high 76% identify as Republicans. This group is also heavily non-Hispanic white (88%), but it is evenly split (i.e., 50%-50%) between women and men. “Only” 43% are over the age of 50 while 40% are 30-49.

Libertarians are far less likely to identify as Republican (28%) than the first two groups, yet an additional 49% identify as Republican-leaning independents. This group constitutes 9% of the population and 10% of registered voters. This group is relatively affluent (with 39% earning over $75,000 per year) and educated (37% have graduated from college and 33% attended college without completing a BA), and it is heavily non-Hispanic white (85%) and male (67%) and 46% is over the age of 50. Libertarians are somewhat more evenly distributed geographically, with 18% in the Northeast, 28% in the South, 28% in the Midwest, and 27% in the West. 

Pew considers the three groups listed above as the core center-right constituencies, and they represent roughly 35% of the electorate. Naturally, Republicans can’t win elections with just over a third of the electorate, and so there are (at least) two other constituencies that are important to GOP electoral prospects.

Disaffecteds, 11% of the population and 11% of registered voters, are religious and socially conservative, yet they are less ideological and less engaged than the aforementioned constituencies. Only 25% identify as Republican, but another 35% identify as Republican-leaning independents. A large majority is non-Hispanic white (77%), 66% have a high school education or less, and a large minority (41%) did not vote in the last congressional election. Only 9% earn more than $75,000 while 51% earn less than $30,000. Disaffecteds are heavily concentrated in the South (41%). A high 49% are over the age of 50, but 68% are between 30 and 65. In some respects, the Disaffecteds resemble Staunch Conservatives, but they are poorer and less educated.

Finally, Postmoderns constitute 13% of the population and 14% of the electorate. A somewhat smaller majority is non-Hispanic white (70%), and only a third (33%) are over-50. This group is somewhat more educated than Libertarians (41% have graduated from college and 30% attended college without completing a BA) and has healthy upper-middle-class representation (34% earn more than $75,000).

When we view the unemployment picture through this lens, a few thoughts spring immediately to mind. The Pew survey asked respondents to report the impact of the recession on their lives. The following are the shares of the above constituencies that reported “no major impact”:

Staunch Conservatives (32%), Main Street Republicans (42%), Libertarians (37%), Disaffecteds (20%), and Postmoderns (44%).

Here are the shares that reported “major impact, mostly recovered”:

Staunch Conservatives (21%), Main Street Republicans (25%), Libertarians (26%), Disaffecteds (16%), and Postmoderns (40%).

And here are the shares that reported “major impact, not yet recovered”:

Staunch Conservatives (46%), Main Street Republicans (32%), Libertarians (37%), Disaffecteds (63%), and Postmoderns (15%).

There was also a question about unemployment — let’s go with “currently unemployed, looking for work”:

Staunch Conservatives (7%), Main Street Republicans (9%), Libertarians (5%), Disaffecteds (14%), and Postmoderns (9%).

And househeld member unemployed in the last year:

Staunch Conservatives (39%), Main Street Republicans (39%), Libertarians (42%), Disaffecteds (71%), and Postmoderns (36%).

The Pew Typology Survey was released in May of last year, and the survey conducted somewhat earlier. We can safely assume that the numbers have changed somewhat since then. But let’s take a quick look at the demographics of unemployment as of the latest BLS data: the unemployment rate for those with a BA or higher is 4.1%, for those with some college it is 7.7%, and for those with a high school diploma but no college it is 8.7%. It is a much higher 13.8% for those without a high school diploma. Then there is this from the unemployment situation summary:

Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rate for adult men decreased to 8.0 percent in December. The jobless rates for adult women (7.9 percent), teenagers (23.1 percent), whites (7.5 percent), blacks (15.8 percent), and Hispanics (11.0 percent) showed little change. The jobless rate for Asians was 6.8 percent, not seasonally adjusted.

Unemployment rates by age are also striking: the male unemployment rate nosedives for men. For 20-24 year-olds, it is 15.3%; for 25-34 year-olds, it is 9.5%; for 35-44 year-olds, it is 6.7%; for 45-54 year-olds it is 6.3%; and for those over 55, it is 6.1%.

To sum up, Republican-leaning groups tend to be older, non-Hispanic white, and male, and they tend to have high school diplomas or more. These are precisely the groups that have tended to have somewhat lower unemployment rates than other groups. 

Moreover, the semi-recovery has been geographically uneven. Floyd Norris of the New York Times recently reported that manufacturing has fared relatively well in recent months. Export-oriented manufacturing jobs are concentrated in the Midwest and in the South, both regions that have a healthy representation of core Republican voters. While unemployment in very high in much of the Deep South — South Carolina, home of a crucial Republican primary, has an unemployment rate of 10.5% — the gap between unemployment for non-Hispanic whites and blacks is quite large. The 2010 average unemployment rate for non-Hispanic whites in South Carolina was 8.4% while it was 18.2% for blacks in South Carolina. 

The demographics of unemployment and of partisan alignment presumably have an impact on the legislative strategies of both political parties. For example, Democratic constituencies tend to be more heavily represented among public employees, which might account for intense resistance to reform the terms of public employment. This is despite the fact that the failure to reform compensation often results in layoffs, as we’ve seen in the contrast between Illinois and Wisconsin. This in turn reflects the dynamics of LIFO (“last in, first out”), i.e., the median public employees isn’t going to be laid off, and solidarity isn’t a high priority when the alternative is accepting an effective cut in compensation. Democratic legislators might be more inclined to embrace fiscal stimulus strategies that place heavy emphasis on transfers to state and local governments.

In contrast, Republican legislators might be strongly resistant to cuts to defense expenditures, which often flow to heavily-Republican regions. They might also feel somewhat less urgency regarding hard-core unemployment, as hard-core unemployment is somewhat more concentrated in Democratic constituencies. 

Many will interpret these facts through a cynical lens, e.g., Republicans don’t care about unemployment because it doesn’t impact “their people,” Democrats are hungry for transfers to reward their most loyal voters, etc. Another possibility is that these facts shape the subjective experience of legislators and candidates as they return home and have conversations with constituents, etc.

Moreover, Democratic prescriptions for addressing unemployment might, as we’ve seen, prove counterproductive. That is, applying aggressive monetary and fiscal stimulus might tend to strengthen the efforts of incumbent firms to scale up their operations by substituting technology for labor, not by increasing employment levels. The argument that the health of corporate profits reveals that the Obama administration has been great for Corporate America is both correct and obtuse: what is good for existing firms, e.g., a lack of competition exacerbated by high regulatory compliance costs and barriers to entry, etc., might actually be bad for employment levels and the broader health of the microeconomy.

And Republicans, meanwhile, might not be sufficiently attuned to the need to improve the allocative efficiency of the economy by curbing tax expenditures favoring the housing sector and outsized transfers to the defense industrial base. 

As the presidential election takes on more of our attention, consider that Republicans have a two-pronged task: to woo Post-Moderns, who have fared relatively well post-2008, and Disaffecteds, who emphatically have not. This may well prove a difficult task. Were Mitt Romney to emerge as the nominee, he might have a shot at persuading Post-Moderns with his suburban sensibility, his problem-solving pragmatism, and his focus on building a more dynamic and competitive market economy. Disaffecteds, however, might respond strongly to attacks on the idea of a dynamic and competitive market economy, and to critiques of private equity and financialization, etc. That is, this constituency might respond strongly to an aggressive fear campaign from the political left. Neutralizing these attacks will have to be a high priority for the eventual Republican nominee.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute Policy Fellow. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Affairs, a member of the ...