Call them Reagan-Hillary Democrats. That label may sound awkward, but it provides a useful description of the working-class whites who helped the Gipper secure a pair of landslides in the 1980s and then propelled Clinton to a series of primary victories in 2008. While these voters represent a declining share of the national electorate, they are heavily concentrated in the Rust Belt — the blue-collar manufacturing region centered around the Great Lakes. It’s a region where Republicans got absolutely clobbered in the last two election cycles. This year, however, the GOP has experienced something of a Rust Belt revival, which may yield big gains on November 2.
Indeed, barring an eleventh-hour collapse, Republicans will capture the governor’s mansions in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, while also picking up Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Indiana (where they already hold the governorship). The polls are extremely tight in Illinois, but there is a decent chance that the GOP will win the governorship and/or Barack Obama’s old Senate perch. Across these six states, no fewer than 21 Democratic House districts (and perhaps several more) are either in play or likely to flip Republican. In some states — including Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana — Republicans seem poised to acquire full control of the legislature.
What explains the GOP comeback? Working-class whites obviously aren’t the whole story, but they’re a significant part of it. A recent AP-GfK survey found that whites who do not have a four-year college degree favor Republican congressional candidates by a margin of 22 percentage points (58 percent to 36 percent). Two years ago, according to exit-poll data, the corresponding margin was only eleven points. In 2006, it was just nine points.
Less educated whites account for a shrinking portion of the overall U.S. voter pool — the minority population is growing faster than the white one, and more whites are getting college degrees — but they still wield major influence in the Rust Belt. Shortly before the 2008 election, Brookings Institution demographers William Frey and Ruy Teixeira noted that Ohio and Michigan “feature eligible voter populations dominated by white working class voters.” Such voters also “play a central role” in Pennsylvania politics, said Frey and Teixeira, especially around Harrisburg (central Pennsylvania) and Allentown (northeast Pennsylvania), “where their absolute numbers are actually increasing.”
Those are the areas of the Keystone State — along with western Pennsylvania, another white-working-class (WWC) stronghold — where Hillary Clinton crushed Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary contest. Next door in Ohio, Clinton carried 83 out of 88 counties, losing the big cities but garnering huge support from WWC communities in the state’s myriad small towns. In the Indiana primary, she got drubbed in Marion County (Indianapolis) but more than made up for that by walloping Obama in the southern and eastern-central parts of the state, which are loaded with WWC voters. As for Michigan — whose 2008 Democratic primary was rendered meaningless by the state’s loss of convention delegates (punishment for moving up its primary date) and by Obama’s non-participation — it is home to a large collection of traditional Reagan Democrats. Indeed, that term first became famous when pollster Stan Greenberg applied it to the socially conservative WWC voters in suburban Macomb County, outside Detroit.
The four states listed above — Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania — constitute the vast majority of Rust Belt territory, with chunks of Wisconsin and Illinois forming its western outskirts. (The industrial swaths of other states, including New York and West Virginia, are also considered part of the region.) All four gave their electoral votes to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, to George H. W. Bush in 1988, and to Barack Obama in 2008.
Obama’s Rust Belt success was driven by the same factors that boosted Democratic candidates throughout the country: the Great Recession, and the massive unpopularity of Republicans in general and George W. Bush in particular. Between November 2004 and November 2006, Bush’s approval rating among voters (as measured in the exit polls) plunged from 61 percent to 38 percent in Indiana, from 53 percent to 41 percent in Ohio, from 50 percent to 38 percent in Pennsylvania, and from 50 percent to 36 percent in Michigan. By November 2008, he had become even less popular in these four states, and Pennsylvania was the only one with a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate below the national average. In the 2006 and 2008 elections, GOP losses in the Rust Belt quartet amounted to 14 House seats, two Senate seats (in Pennsylvania and Ohio), one governorship (in Ohio), and four legislative chambers (one in each state). Republicans also lost a House seat and a legislative chamber in Wisconsin, plus a House seat in Illinois.