Has Barack Obama’s Democratic Party given up on winning the votes of the white working class? Thomas Edsall, the longtime Washington Post reporter now with The Huffington Post, thinks so.
Surveying the plans of Democratic strategists, Edsall wrote in The New York Times on Nov. 28 that “all pretense of trying to win a majority of the white working class has been effectively jettisoned.”
Of course, an Obama campaign spokesman issued a prompt denial. No campaign wants any groups of voters to know that it has written them off.
But Edsall is plainly on to something. Obama campaign strategists have made it known that they are concentrating on states like Colorado and Virginia — states with high percentages of college educated voters, young voters and minorities.
Obama carried both these states in 2008, even though Republican presidential candidates had carried Virginia in every election and Colorado in all but one election between 1964 and 2004.
Not all Democrats accept the Colorado/Virginia strategy. William Galston, a top domestic aide in the Clinton White House, has argued that the Obama campaign should concentrate on states like Ohio, with an older and more blue-collar population.
Only one Democrat in the last century has won the presidency without carrying Ohio, Galston points out. If John Kerry had run just 2 points stronger there in 2004, he would have been elected president.
And Ohio’s demographics look a lot like those in Pennsylvania, which Obama carried by 10 points in 2004 but where he is now running behind in the polls.
But Galston’s advice has been spurned, and perhaps that just reflects an acceptance of a longstanding reality.
For the Democratic Party has not been the party of the white working class for a very long time. Democrats lost the support of white non-college voters starting in the late 1960s, as rioters burned city ghettoes and college campuses were beset by student rebellions.
Democratic politicians responded by seeking to assuage what they considered to be righteous grievances.
For 50 years, from 1917 to 1968, the Democrats were the more hawkish of the two major parties, more likely than Republicans to support military intervention. Since 1968, they have been the more dovish party.
For 30 years, from 1933 to 1964, the Democrats pushed programs designed to help the working class: Social Security and Medicare, FHA home mortgage loans, support for labor unions. But since the middle 1960s, when antipoverty programs took center stage, Democrats in Washington and big cities have pushed welfare programs for the poor and lenient measures against crime.
The Democrats’ shift produced vote gains in some segments of the electorate. Blacks, who voted 62 percent for John Kennedy, have voted about 90 percent Democratic starting in 1964.
Democrats’ dovishness and liberal stands on cultural issues won them support from the growing percentage of college-educated voters. But those same stands cost them support among those who came to be called “Reagan Democrats.”
Talented Democratic strategists like pollster Stanley Greenberg and elections analyst Ruy Teixeira struggled for decades to come up with strategies to bring the white working class back to what they considered their natural political home. But even Bill Clinton was unable to get them back.
You can see the results in the 2008 exit poll. Barack Obama got a higher percentage of the total vote than any other Democratic nominee in history except Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.
But he did it without capturing the vast middle of the electorate. He won with a top-and-bottom coalition, carrying voters with incomes over $200,000 and under $50,000, and losing those in between. He carried voters with graduate-school degrees and those with no high school diplomas, and ran only even with the others.
Obama lost among noncollege whites by a 58 percent to 40 percent margin. And in the 2010 House elections, non-college whites went Republican by 63 percent to 33 percent.
So maybe it makes sense for Obama to write off the white working class. Yet he is doing it in an odd way, by enacting New Deal-like programs and expending great energy on raising taxes on high earners.
Historically, that was the way to win working class votes. But it plainly isn’t doing so now, and it seems poorly calculated to enthuse the top half of the top-and-bottom coalition. Class warfare is a dubious strategy when you’ve written off the working class.