Last spring — remember spring? — Ramesh and I wrote a short piece for NR arguing that Republicans should focus on the economic anxieties of working and middle class voters rather than the cultural concerns of the college-educated upper-middle-class. We certainly didn’t intend to argue that Republicans don’t need to win affluent voters. Rather, we rejected the idea that social conservatism was the source of the GOP’s electoral woes. And we suggested that a domestic policy focused on bread-and-butter issues that resonate with so-called “downscale” voters would do more to restore the party’s credibility with “upscale” voters than an embrace of liberal policies on abortion and the environment. We framed the piece as a disagreement with Michael Barone.
The distinguished political journalist Michael Barone recently wrote that one of the key choices facing Republicans is “whether to go after downscale or upscale voters.” The former tend to be “cultural conservatives, and rural and small-town voters,” and to love Alaska governor Sarah Palin. The latter tend to be socially liberal and, though Barone does not underscore the point, to disdain Palin. Barone’s tentative conclusion is that “going upscale is the right move.” He points out that young, high-income voters were more likely to support Obama than to support House Democrats, suggesting that Republicans can win them over.
We think that Barone’s tentative judgment is incorrect: To the extent that Republicans have to choose among which group to find new voters, they should look first to “downscale” voters without college degrees. Instead of fretting about Greenwich, Conn., the party needs to focus on the increasingly racially diverse working-class neighborhoods of New Jersey, Minnesota, and Colorado.
Now, however, Barone seems to have changed his mind. In a recent column, he celebrates the “downscale” coalition that elected Scott Brown in Massachusetts.
Members of “the educated class” may trust government bureaucrats to allocate health care resources — that’s the way they talk — and to use comparative effectiveness research to control physicians’ decisions. Many of them are employed by governments or nonprofits and are used to navigating bureaucratic waters. After all, their prime asset in life is their ability to manipulate words.
But voters in middle-income suburbs — some with many college graduates, some with only a few — who mostly work in the private sector took a different view. They surged to the polls in far larger numbers than in off-year elections and cast most of their votes, often more than two-thirds, for Brown.
In fairness, Barone is describing a sensibility divide as much as an income divide, yet that was also true of the analysis that Ramesh and I advanced in our article.
To understand why the young, upscale voters Barone mentioned may be hard for Republicans to reach, consider why Democrats have done so well with them in the first place. Many of them are clustered in dense, populous, high-cost communities, whether big cities or their inner suburbs. Government plays a more pervasive role here than it does elsewhere, and voters are socialized into believing that this is a good thing. (It helps that the state and local tax deduction insulates voters in these regions from the costs of governmental profligacy.) Elected officials, regardless of partisan affiliation, are expected to take an active role in managing the conflicts and trade-offs that inevitably emerge over traffic congestion, school funding, policing, and economic development.
One commonly held view is that “upscale” voters are voting against their economic interests out of distaste for Republican social views. This view ignores economic geography. The Center for an Urban Future, a centrist think tank, recently found that a middle-class lifestyle that costs $50,000 in Houston costs $72,772 in Boston and $123,322 in Manhattan. Many of the young, high-income voters who have flocked to the Democrats have done so because they feel financially strapped, and are eager to offload the burdens of acquiring health insurance and affordable housing onto the federal government.
Notice that while President Obama has lost the support of some college-educated upper-middle-class voters, a phenomenon that Ron Brownstein has pointed to as a warning sign, he still has the allegiance of affluent cultural liberals who live in dense cities. Though this group is relatively small as a share of the national electorate, it is a vitally important part of the liberal base, with an outsized role in funding the Democrats and in staffing the policymaking and message-making elite. If Republicans decide to jettison social conservatism, they won’t change this dynamic, as it is rooted in more than a cultural distaste for Sarah Palin.
That said, one reason why Republicans are arguably doing somewhat better among college-educated upper-middle-class voters in the suburbs is an increasing emphasis on tax-and-spend as opposed to culture war controversies. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
But while making a strong and unambiguous case against the Democratic agenda has paid dividends so far, the shock of Massachusetts has come as an early-warning signal to the left, thus making the job of conservative candidates and activists that much more difficult. Oppose-oppose-oppose has been the right strategy so far — good policy (adding tort reform to an unenforceable and arguably illiberal mandate would not have been a win worth fighting for) and good politics. That won’t necessarily be true in the next phase. As Rich notes, the 1994 cycle hasn’t repeated itself yet.