The Diversity of the White Working Class

by Nate Cohn | June 19, 2012

Are Republicans increasingly becoming the party of the white working class? So says Jonathan Haidt, but political scientist Larry Bartels offers up a convincing response: While the white working class has trended toward Republicans over the last few decades, the movement is exclusively a Southern phenomenon. In fact, Democrats have actually made slight gains among non-southern white working class voters since the 1970s. While Bartels description of the last forty years is accurate, recent polls suggest Democratic gains are in jeopardy.

Students of the electoral map should recognize that Bartels' claim is accurate. Indeed, the Democratic resurgence in traditionally competitive or Republican Northeastern and Midwest states, like Michigan, Illinois, and New Jersey, is partially due to gains in white working class communities. Macomb County, Michigan—the consumate white working class county outside of Detroit—captures this movement. The heavily unionized county was at the heart of the “New Deal coalition” and voted for Democrats in all but one election between 1932 and 1968; then, in the '70's and '80's, they  shifted decisively toward the GOP. In 1996, Macomb County lurched into the toss-up column, along with suburban counties in other northern metropolitan areas. Gun control, environmental protection, and Medicare replaced welfare and affirmative action, providing Clinton, Gore, Kerry, and Obama a clear advantage in northern industrial states that overwhelmingly selected Republicans between 1972 and 1988.

But Democratic gains among non-Southern white working class voters were almost exclusively realized in suburban and urban communities. Many of the issues that propelled metropolitan areas towards Democrats in the 1990s, like gun control and the environment, prompted an equal and opposite reaction from rural voters. At the same time, other cultural issues, like gay marriage, accelerated the movement of religiously conservative voters into the GOP column, without similar movement among more moderate voters in northern suburbs and cities. In 2008, the divergent partisan preferences of white working class voters continued to grow along geographic lines. While Obama's support among traditionally Democratic white working class voters in Upland South collapsed, Obama made huge inroads with white working class voters across the West and Midwest. In some counties, Obama's performance was even better than LBJ's in 1964.

While Bartels confirms that Democrats have made slight gains among non-Southern working class whites over the last few decades, recent polling suggests that Romney has an excellent opportunity to reverse the trend. Polls from Quinnipiac and Pew Research show that Obama's losses since 2008 are concentrated among whites without a college degree. While some might be tempted to assume that Obama's losses have disproportionately manifested in the South, Quinnipiac's state polling suggests that Obama is also bleeding white working class support in Northeastern states like New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. At the same time, Quinnipiac's polling actually suggests that Obama is maintaining his support in Virginia, a state with a predominantly Southern white working class population. Obama's resilience in Virginia and North Carolina, combined with the renewed competitiveness of Iowa and Wisconsin, might be evidence that most of Obama's losses among working class whites have come outside of the South, where Obama has further to fall.

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