Perhaps no book better encapsulates how liberals remain perplexed about how white working class voters act in the ballot box than What’s the Matter with Kansas by Thomas Frank. In the book Frank argues that white working class voters are tricked into voting against their economic interests by Republican efforts to woo them on social issues. Democratic efforts to woo single women on abortion is not nearly as bad.
The modern Obama coalition is evidence that Democrats have given up on these voters. Obama won a mere 43% of the white vote in 2008 and an abysmal 39% in 2012. In 2008 Obama won a mere 30.2% of the white vote in the South and his numbers in the region were even worse than 2012. Obama made up for his lack of support among whites by running very, very strongly among minorities and boosting Hispanic and African-American turnout.
Many Democratic strategists seem to have concluded Obama’s coalition will prove durable for the next Democratic nominee. But not every prospective 2016 Democratic Presidential contender agrees. Two long-shot candidates, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (an Independent by political affiliation) and former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer have discussed how the party needs to win back white working class voters.
Their arguments, valid in my opinion, have both policy and electoral implications for Democrats. During the age of Obama the party has enjoyed unparalleled dominance among minorities. Gallup has found the President the President has been underwater in overall job approval rating among whites since 2010 but has maintained a base of 40% support with over 70% support among all minorities. Obama’s dominance has allowed the party to dominate in swing and pink states during Presidential years. But the lone midterm, 2010, saw white working class voters abandon the party 64%-33% and minority turnout drop significantly, 2014 is shaping up to feature the same dynamic. For Democrats this means they can win almost half the Senate and the White House but they will consistently fail to control the House and never have a lock on the Senate. For the Democrats policy agenda, an inability to control Congress will hinder their long-term goals but also whites, a majority of the public still, will continue to be sour on the party. One cannot pursue a policy agenda that a majority of the public consistently opposes.
So how can Democrats win back these voters? If you subscribe to the school of thought of Bernie Sanders and Schweitzer, Democrats need to de-emphasize social issues and discuss how the redistribution of resources will help them. Of course this runs smack into the Democratic argument that the GOP is waging a war on women. Another argument, one that has been made by the progressive champion and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren on how to woo blue collar voters is to create a narrative that the party is fighting for them over the interests of big business. There is even room for a third argument whereby you appeal to these voters on some social issues such as guns and religion but promote a liberal economic agenda that aids their interests.
If Democrats decided to pursue any of these strategies it would undoubtedly remake the party’s policy agenda and electoral agenda. The modern-day Democratic coalition of the young, single women, minorities and upscale suburban moderates is socially liberal and fiscally moderate to liberal. Many blue-collar whites are socially conservative as well as fiscally conservative in terms of the debt and taxes. It remains notable that whites rank the debt and spending much higher than other electoral groups in terms of important policy issues and are much less likely to support other Democratic policy efforts such as affirmative action and civil rights.
Republicans are only to happy to see Democrats cede the white working class vote. This has allowed the GOP to come to total almost total dominance in the South and maintain a lock in the House of Representatives. In swing state Senate races in 2014 (Iowa and Colorado) it gives the party hope they can win in these purple states by earning the support of white working class voters. Republicans should be cautious however. Romney won an astounding 59% of the white vote in 2012 and yet still lost the popular vote by almost 4% and only won a single swing state, North Carolina, by a mere 2%.
The primary proponents on the Left promoting bringing back the white working class into the party fold are outsiders looking in. The party’s likely 2016 standard-bearer, Hillary Clinton, is far more likely to try to hold together the Obama coalition. If Clinton does not run, VP Joe Biden, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren are likely to dip their toes in the water and their electoral fortunes do not coincide with winning the white working class. Warren talks a good game about appealing to these voters but it would be much easier win other sets of voters more favorable to her ideas.
One could easily argue that any Democratic effort to win the white working class vote in 2016 will be complicated by the Obama legacy. A majority of whites oppose Obamacare, support the Keystone Pipeline, oppose new EPA environmental regulations and disapprove of the President’s handling of foreign policy, the economy, spending, taxes, etc. Any Democrat attempting to woo these voters will need to distance themselves from the administration but not so much as to lose the party’s primary base of minorities and suburban moderates.
In his novel Frank makes a valid point that the GOP has captured the white vote on social issues. But what is overlooked is that political parties have to appeal to voters moral views. Democrats have done this with single women who support abortion and the young who support gay marriage. Republicans have done no differently. The Democrats best chance of winning the white working class vote is to mix leftist, economic populism with enough socially conservative policies to entice these voters. Admittedly, the list of Democrats who have tried this and failed is long (Mondale, Gore, Kerry, Edwards) but if the right Democratic can successfully navigate the political currents and appeal to both the party base and white working class voters Democrats might see whites return to their party, if only for a while (in a remix of Bill Clinton).