To the casual observer the last five American elections have been a bizarre set of differing outcomes. 2006 and 2008 ushered in a Democratic President and the party’s strongest Congressional majorities since FDR. Then, a mere two years later Republicans took back the House. In 2012 the President was soundly reelected and his policies affirmed by the public (if not all its segments). Last November, the public sent him a resounding verdict on the first two years of his second term.
But dig deeper into the results of these elections and you find a startling result that runs counter to common narrative. The differing results of the last five elections are not just because of differing electorates (Presidential vs. midterm) but because the “middle class” has ever so slowly been drifting inexorably towards the GOP.
But first, let’s define what I mean by “middle class?” After all, it seems many have differing interpretations of who this group includes. For our purposes it is the bloc of voters that earn between $50K to $100K, have a college degree (but not post-graduate) and work primarily in white collar professions (accounting, business, IT, etc.).
Let’s first look at this voting bloc’s electoral history. Keep in mind for some of this bloc’s history certain common jobs today did not exist. At the rise of the 20th century this bloc of voters was solidly Republican. They counterbalanced the strongly Democratic South and gave the GOP numerous Presidential victories between 1896 and 1932. Yet, when the Great Depression hit, this bloc of voters strongly backed FDR to get the economy moving again. However, their mistrust of government was evident in 1946 a mere two years after FDR passed away. Strong GOP Congressional majorities washed away many of America’s WWII governmental programs.
The bloc also showed its GOP leanings by strongly backing Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. They backed Nixon in 60 and gave him the White House in 68 and 72. After the stagflation of the Carter years the bloc helped form a key linchpin in the Reagan coalition. More recently, these “middle class” voters only narrowly backed Clinton in 92 and went slightly for Dole in 96. The group backed GWB in 2000 and even more strongly in 2004.
What course has this increasingly diverse voting bloc charted since 2004? Despite Democratic successes in 06 and 08 the party only narrowly carried these voters in both elections. Republicans overwhelmingly won them in 2010, by less in 2012 and again by large margins in 2014. But it is not just that Republicans are increasingly winning these voters but the middle class is expanding as a segment of the electorate and where the GOP is winning these voters that is having repercussions.
Unlike blue collar voters, middle income professionals are growing as a share of the electorate. Primarily white (70%-75%) this group of voters went from 24% of the electorate in 2004 to 29% in 2008 and 31% in 2012. Meanwhile, blue collar workers have slipped from 65% of the electorate in 1980 to just 39% in 2008. According to census estimates, turnout among middle-class voters is 10 percentage points or more higher than among working-class voters
Even Democratic strength among Millennials and those with graduate degrees cannot match this trend. The number of post-graduate degree holders is not expected to increase significantly and younger Millennials are starting to show a definitive GOP lean. Among the Millennials in 2008 and 2012 that voted for Obama a series of Harvard Institute of Politics polls have shown today they mirror the public at large’s views on government. So much for Obama locking in a generation of voters.
Republicans have been victorious in swing and blue states because of these voters. For examples of this let’s look at the Colorado and Iowa Senate races in 2014 compared to 2012. Let’s also look the the gubernatorial races in Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois (all blue states where Republicans captured the Governors mansions) and the 2012 and 2014 House exit polls.
In Colorado in 2012 college educated voters went for Romney 55%-43% but those earning between $50K-$100K went for Obama 50%-48%. Now Republican Senator Corey Gardner dramatically outperformed Romney, winning bachelor holders 45%-50% (44%-51% among those with some college) and significantly among those between $50K-$100K 57%-40%. Combined with an improved showing among lower income whites it gave Gardner his edge.
In Iowa, Obama carried bachelor holders 50%-48% and won middle income earners 50%-49%. New Republican Senator Joni Ernst cruised among both groups, racking up a 57%-42% win among bachelor holders and 53%-42% among middle earners. Like Gardner she also won those with associate degrees.
The results in 2014’s Governor’s races also illustrate how even in blue states middle income voters are moved by fiscal issues. In Illinois, Republican Bruce Rauner ran a campaign relentlessly focused on fiscal issues. As a result he dominated among college graduates 60%-36% and 55%-44% among the 38% of the electorate that identified as middle income. No exit polls were done in Massachusetts or Maryland but it is instructive just looking at the geography of the vote. In Massachusetts, Charlie Baker carried blue-collar Worcester County 56%-38%. Even more importantly, he built on wins from his 2010 run in Essex and Bristol counties and every other county on the coast. These counties are heavy on white collar professions driving their economies. In Maryland, Larry Hogan won an upset victory over Lt. Governor Anthony Brown. Brown only managed to carry four counties in the entire state while Hogan won Harford, Baltimore and Howard counties full of white collar professionals by healthy margins.
Let’s also not forget what the House exit polls tell us. In 2012 Democrats lost middle income voters 54%-45% and college grads 52%-46%. But in 2014 GOP victories among this group grew. The GOP won among college grads 44%-54% and middle earners 44%-55%. Those with associate degrees also backed Republicans by a similar margin.
This voting trend is a far cry from Democrats high-water mark among these voters in 2008. Even in 2010, Democrats in blue states were able to successfully court these voters. So has anything among these voters changed in the last two years?
The answer is no. This group of voters is fiscally pragmatic and socially liberal. They are attracted to Republicans who downplay social issues and do not practice a “destroy government at all costs” mentality. This explains why in Colorado attacks from Senator Mark Udall against Cory Gardner on abortion fell flat when he did not engage. In Maryland, Hogan’s pro-life position was at odds with many in the state but he nullified the issue when he said he would not change the state’s abortion laws.
Middle class voters have held views of late that do not fit well into either party. They don’t love the religious right or the Tea party. But they also don’t fit into the liberal love affair with benevolent big government. Instead, they view government skeptically and do not like spending without results.
So how does this play into the 2016 race? I thought you would never ask. Republicans would be mindful to remember that their victories in 2010 and 2014 were not just built off gains among working class whites but also college graduate professionals. Unlike blue collar workers, professionals do not relish clashing over social issues but they share blue collar voters distrust of government.
Republicans should nominate a candidate that does not pitch a “burn it down” message but also brandishes enough socially conservative credentials to unite the party. Still, said Republican will need to walk a fine line to win the religious right and keep GOP gains from 2014.
Democrats might be helped in gaining some ground among middle income professionals with Hillary. She does not pitch the populist message of Elizabeth Warren that the base loves. Many middle income professionals salaries and livelihood are tied to corporations and so they tend to have more nuanced viewss on the subject than hard-line left or right ideologies.
Ultimately, Republicans have gained among this group to the detriment of Democrats. Skeptical of government, middle income professionals are willing to vote for Democrats when Republicans mess up (Great Depression, Watergate, Great Recession) but they generally return to a center right voting pattern. If Republicans note this and nominate the right candidate in 2016 it could put them over the top in rapidly diversifying and increasingly educated states like Iowa, Colorado, Nevada and Virginia.
Addendum 1: Lest anybody think only middle income whites are more likely to vote Republican according to a Pew study of the 2012 elections, Hispanic support for Obama was 13 percentage points lower among those with a college degree than among those without a college degree; and it was 23 points lower among those making more than $50,000 than among those making less than $50,000. Asians, highly successful, went from voting for Obama by over 30% to splitting their vote for the House in 2014.