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Why Democrats Can't Figure Out White Working-Class Voters

Poor white people turned out for Republicans in the midterms, but the demographic is a wildcard going into 2016.

Livia Gershon

Livia Gershon

Unless you've been sleeping under a rock since Christmas, you've no doubt noticed that the 2016 presidential race is already underway. As the political classes gear up for their two-year talkathon, the conversation inevitably turns to the demographics game that both parties will have to play to compete for the White House. Can the GOP convince Hispanic voters that a Republican president won't ship their loved ones across the border the moment he takes office? Who is winning the War on Women? Will Obama's coalition of sprightly youths and minority voters turn out when the man himself isn't on the ticket?

The real wildcard, though, is white voters, and specifically the white working class, a voting bloc that once voted solidly Democratic, but whom conventional wisdom suggests now cast their ballots for Republicans. Here's Jim Webb, the former Virginia senator whose embryonic presidential campaign is based largely on the idea that he, and not Hillary Clinton, can win back these voters for the left: "I think this is where Democrats screw up, you know?" Webb told Yahoo! News this month. "I think that they have kind of unwittingly used this group, white working males, as a whipping post for a lot of their policies. And then when they react, they say they're being racist."

The National Review's Victor Davis Hanson put it more succinctly in a column last week, arguing that Democrats' "out-of-touch privilege... led to agendas — radical green politics, hyper-feminism, transgender advocacy, forced multiculturalism, open borders — that were not principle concerns of the struggling working classes."

The basic argument is this: The white working class are increasingly voting for Republicans because they like guns and God, and because Democrats are too focused on giving welfare to people who don't work. The idea has taken many forms over the years, from Vietnam-era hippie-punching construction workers to Reagan Democrats to Duck Dynasty's redneck-styled (though actually quite wealthy) right-wingers. For pundits on the right, it makes sense that these people would vote for Republican. For some on the left, it suggests that lower-income white people are being tricked into voting against their own self-interest.

The 2014 elections added more fuel to the argument, with a massive GOP landslide among non-college-educated white voters, the group generally referred to as the white working class. Republicans won this bloc 64 percent to 34 percent, while achieving a smaller 57-41 margin among white college graduates.

But the conclusion that the GOP is the new party of the white working ignores the way the demographics of the vote actually break down. And it obscures a much more serious problem that Democrats have with less affluent Americans of all races and education levels.

Janet Sullivan

In New Hampshire, a state of perennial political interest thanks to its first-in-the-nation presidential primaries, a lot of voters sound less like Phil Robertson than like Janet Sullivan, who lives in Grafton, a western New Hampshire town with under 2,000 residents. The daughter of a truck driver, Sullivan told me it just makes sense for her to vote Democrat. "It's a blue-collar thing, maybe," she said. "They always seem for the little guy." Technically, by the measures the media usually uses, Sullivan isn't working class—she has a college degree. But working as a high school counselor doesn't bring in the big bucks, and her family has also depended on the income of her husband, who was a union construction worker for 40 years.

"He has a pension," she said. "We've always had health care. His feeling was they wouldn't even have water on the job if it wasn't for the union."

New Hampshire is one of the whitest states in the country, and, in recent presidential elections, it's shifted from red to purple and on toward blue. The obvious explanation, if you associate the term "white Democrat" with "cultural elite," is that an influx of liberal urbanites from Boston has shifted the vote. But look at the map of the most recent election results, and that's not the picture that emerges. The blue parts of the state are mostly in the rural, less prosperous north and west. Rockingham County, where the typical household income is the highest in the state at $77,000 a year—thanks partly to doctors, lawyers and software engineers commuting into Greater Boston—tends to vote solidly Republican, and in 2014, was the strongest base for GOP Senate candidate Scott Brown. Meanwhile, in Coos County, a land of former mill towns in the far-north of New Hampshire where the typical family income is the lowest in the state at $42,000 a year, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen won nearly two-thirds of the vote, her best performance.

Jeff Woodburn, a Democratic state senator from Coos County, whose website notes his appeal to "rural values and culture" and includes a headshot of him holding a chicken, said his district has traditionally tended towards moderate Eisenhower Republicanism. People there aren't particularly receptive to Tea Party theatrics or extreme free-market rhetoric, he said, especially in the face of economic decline. "Nobody in their right mind," he said, can look at the closing of a local paper mill and say "'Let the market take care of it.' The market did take care of it... their livelihood was destroyed."

Woodburn said his constituents care about keeping their guns, and about the declining purchasing power of the wages they can find in the area. "In my areas anyway, they're getting it that there is an economic strategy to drive wages down, drive profits up, and that they're not part of that American dream," he said.

Emily Jacobs, chair of the Coos County Democratic Party and a former "navigator" hired to help people figure out the federal Affordable Care Act, said the new healthcare law seems to be a selling point for the Democratic Party. She said some "heavy-duty conservative people" sought out insurance just to avoid paying a fine, but later ended up happy that they could visit the doctor without big copays on their $50-a-month plans. "They say 'I can take my kids in for an ear infection and not have to worry.' That's huge," she said.

Andy Hill, a Democratic voter, at his diner in Lebanon, New Hampshire.

Clearly, New Hampshire's working-class whites aren't representative of their counterparts across the country. But they do offer a sense of how much more complicated things are than the standard narrative might suggest. In a 2012 Brookings Institution paper, research fellow Elisabeth Jacobs (no relation to Emily) looked at voting patterns among working-class whites since the 1950s and found that many standard assumptions really don't hold up.

For one thing, self-identified white working-class voters don't usually vote based on "God, guns, and gays," even though they remain fairly conservative on those issues. More educated and wealthier whites are the ones most likely to look to social issues when casting their votes. And, when it comes to the economy, working-class whites are likely to say government should have a greater role in providing services and creating jobs. That shouldn't really surprise anyone, since white people in low-paid jobs or temporarily unemployed are the biggest demographic enrolled in programs like food stamps.

If more of these voters don't vote for Democrats, Jacobs said, the reason may not be that they are fed up with government interference in the market, but because they don't see the party distinguishing itself as economically progressive. "I think in many cases it's because people want to see something more aggressively different, more populist," she said.

Jacobs found that working-class whites really have shifted toward the Republican Party over the decades, but the change has come almost entirely from the South, as conservative Democrats died out in the post-Civil Rights era and were replaced by conservative Republicans. In that case, though, it wasn't the voters in the region who changed ideologies, but the parties. In fact, between 1984 and 2008, white people who call themselves working class became slightly more Democratic in the rest of the country, though the change was offset by the Republican shift in the South.

Parse things by income instead of education, and the picture shifts even more. In both the South and elsewhere, lower-income whites are much more likely to vote Democratic than their racial counterparts in the upper middle class.

That's not to say that there aren't plenty of working-class white Republicans in New Hampshire. And some, like Mike Chesanek, a retired cop who says he shifted party allegiances over the years, do fit the standard media narrative. "Democrats years ago used to be for the working people," Chesanek said. "Now I have the feeling Democrats are for the people who don't work."

Depending on how you define the white working class, you can come to a wide variety of conclusions about voting patterns. But spend too much time thinking about these details, and you miss a major piece of the puzzle: The huge number of white working-class people, and lower-income people of all races, who don't vote at all.

A recent Pew Research Center report found that 42 percent of people in the least economically secure fifth of the population preferred a Democratic candidate in 2014, while just 17 percent supported a Republican. But, among those same low-income voters, only one in five was likely to actually vote. (In contrast, the most economically secure Americans were more likely to favor Republicans, and nearly two-thirds of the group was identified as likely voters.) Looking just at the least economically secure white voters, 37 percent preferred a Democratic candidate, while 21 percent supported a Republican, but the most popular choice at 41 percent was "other/not sure."

The participation gap is evident in New Hampshire. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that only 39 percent of adults in working-class Coos County voted in the last election, compared with 51 percent who voted in wealthy Rockingham County. Emily Jacobs, the Coos County Democratic Party chair, said the biggest task for the party is not recruiting voters, but pushing them to turn out on Election Day.

"It was nothing to do with having enough support," she said. "It has to do with getting Democrats to the polls."

Elisabeth Jacobs, the researcher, said that if we want to understand how class affects voting as we look toward 2016, the gap between voters and non-voters is in some ways more important than the party breakdown. "If you're talking about the white working class versus the white working class voters, you're talking about very different universes of people," she said.

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