There are certain demographic groups that endlessly fascinate political people in both parties. Latinos are the obvious example: They’re the fastest growing part of the electorate, with characteristics that offer some potential to Republicans (if they could ever clean up their act!) and Democrats alike. Progressives are forever seeking to “wedge” women away from the GOP because of that party’s views on gender equity and reproductive rights issues. And conservatives never give up hope that fears over Israel’s security will lead Jews to forswear their ancient attachment to liberal politics.
But another political cockpit of great vintage involves a group that has become central to today’s GOP and haunts Democrats as integral to their glory days: white non-college educated voters, also known as the “white working class.”
From the days of the “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s, the Democratic share of the “white working class vote” has been deteriorating in fits and starts, especially in presidential elections. Up until the 1990s, this vote ebbed and flowed alongside Democratic support among college-educated Democrats, but more recently, has become its own little Democratic disaster. In 2008, in a very good Democratic year, Barack Obama won only 39 percent of non-college educated white voters, as opposed to 47 percent of college educated whites. In 2012, the Democratic share of the white working class vote dropped to 36 percent, and as ticket-splitting has declined, it’s dropped even more in difficult midterm years, reaching an abysmal 34 percent in 2014.
The silver lining for Democrats has been that this slice of the electorate has also been steadily declining in size: from a majority of the vote as recently as 1988, to about a third today. And Obama’s poor performance in this demographic was offset by that new phenomenon, the Obama Coalition, the young-plus-minority voters, sure to be larger in the future, among whom Democrats have been achieving unprecedented margins. If only they voted as heavily in midterms as in presidential elections!
But even in this presidential cycle, the fear that a nominee not named Barack Obama will fall short of his turnout and vote-share levels among the Obama Coalition has led to schemes of making up the votes elsewhere. And whereas Hillary Clinton has a plausible case she can boost the Democratic vote among women, other Democrats—especially supporters of Bernie Sanders—are looking wistfully at that old flame, the white working class vote.
Sanders represents the strongly-held belief of many progressives, especially in the labor movement, that a clear, loud and consistently articulated “economic populist” message can at least partially rebuild the New Deal coalition with its cross-racial, class-based sinews, particularly if “corporate Democrat” flirtations with Wall Street and professional elites are abandoned along with excessive “identity politics” cultural preoccupations that might alienate white workers. But muting points of identity with the Obama Coalition in order to pursue a purely class-based “colorblind” politics isn’t without its intra-progressive risks, as Bernie Sanders himself found out last weekend in Phoenix when he ran afoul of #blacklivesmatter protesters.
And while it is entirely unfair to accuse Sanders of white-working-class chauvinism, much less racism, he’s paying the price for being associated with an “economics first!” point of view that can fairly be seen as an obstacle for minority folk (and arguably feminists) who want a higher priority placed on challenging white male patriarchy in non-economic arenas. And so a candidate who hoped to draw white working class voters back into a coalition with minority voters has instead heightened doubts he understand the latter.
This is a test that Hillary Clinton, herself the object of some talk about a possible revival of white working class support (though largely based on her husband’s performance back in the 1990s and her own in Democratic primaries in 2008), may have to face herself at some point soon.
Beyond the candidates, there are some Democratic observers—notably a long-time expert on this demographic, Stan Greenberg—who believe the key to regaining a portion of the white working class is to identify with its hostility to government as corrupt and ineffective and offer a “populist” agenda that prominently includes political and government reform.
Despite their already strong standing among non-college-educated white voters, Republicans think there’s still political gold to mine in this demographic as well, in no small part because they are struggling to open up any really new avenues for growing their vote. Many are mesmerized by Sean Trende’s analysis after the 2012 elections suggesting there were millions of “missing white votes” in 2012 that helped doom Mitt Romney, mostly among “downscale northern rural” voters. This has led to a boom of “conservative populist” talk, some of it as superficial as non-college graduate Scott Walker’s endless paeans to Kohl’s shoppers, some a bit more focused on promoting the already-robust GOP anti-Washington themes, odd as they seem with Republicans controlling Congress.
One 2016 GOP presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, signaled early on that he would identify with white working class voters who were sufficiently integrated into the GOP to vote in presidential primaries but had not internalized Republican elite economic positions. Building on the “populist” rhetoric of his 2008 campaign, Huckabee announced he would oppose both the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and the “entitlement reform” proposals that are equally beloved of the GOP’s business wing. But Huck has so far run a desultory and poorly financed campaign mostly focused on hustling copies of his latest book, and tending to his conservative evangelical base by waxing hysterical on alleged threats to Christianity.
Into Huck’s lost opportunity has moved another candidate who opposes trade agreements and entitlement reform, along with the business wing’s solicitude for sanity on immigration policy, packaged in the form of the ultimate celebrity businessman: Donald Trump.
Trump’s shocking surge into the lead in 2016 Republican polls, and his possible return to earth after giving his rivals and the RNC an excuse to bring the hammers of hell down on him by disrespecting John McCain’s war record, has obscured his sources of support. Efforts to typecast his supporters ideologically, or in terms of prefab party factions like the Tea Party, have largely run aground. But it’s difficult to identify a better fit for Sean Trende’s “missing white voters”—downscale and largely non-southern—than Donald Trump. And a new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows Trump at his peak attracting 33 percent of non-college educated white voters among Republicans and Republican-leaners, as opposed to 9 percent of college educated white GOpers and leaners. (Bernie Sanders, in contrast, runs better among college educated than non-college educated Democrats against Hillary Clinton and the rest of the Democratic field.) Even if Trump quickly falls to earth, he has to be taken semi-seriously as a potential independent candidate in 2016.
And here’s the real shocker in that WaPo/ABC poll: In a hypothetical three-way race with Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, Trump pulls 31 percent of white non-college educated voters, dead even with HRC and just three points behind Jeb.
So who’s the white working class hero? Potentially it’s the Democratic nominee, if she or he takes Stan Greenberg’s advice. But let’s not discount Donald Trump, who’s a reminder that the white working class is now by the numbers predominantly an angry anti-elite constituency that doesn’t love GOP economic positions—but isn’t waiting to be invited back into the Democratic tent, either.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.