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How Democrats Can (And Can’t) Win Over White Voters

By Andy Levison, Guest Contributor on July 10, 2013 at 8:05 pm

"How Democrats Can (And Can’t) Win Over White Voters"

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(Credit: Flickr user Eric Pakurar)

In an earlier TP Ideas post, Ruy Teixeira expanded on the argument that he and I put forth in our recent New Republic article, “Why the Democrats Still Need Working Class White Voters,” arguing that, within this broad demographic group, women and millennials are particularly open to Democratic candidates and ideas. There’s no real doubt that this is correct, but there’s an open question about the degree to which they can actually be appealed to as distinct voting groups.

Focus groups and door to door canvassers report the same basic observation: white working class women and the young are generally much more open to persuasion than older, male white workers. In the political typology that pollster Stan Greenberg offered in his 2004 book The Two Americas, Stan rather cheerfully and descriptively labeled the latter group “The F*** You Old Men.”

But Democrats need to be very cautious about jumping from the existence of such differences in attitudes between subgroups to the superficially attractive idea that it might be possible to design a Democratic appeal that would specifically target –- indeed microtarget — only white working class women and the young.

The appeal of such a strategy is obvious. It would appear to offer a way to perhaps capture just enough white working class support from those two subgroups to win elections without having to tackle the larger and more complex challenge of winning support from white working Americans as a whole. In fact, it even suggests the tantalizing possibility that those subgroups might even be successfully appealed to as members of the broader social categories of women and youth rather than as part of a specific appeal to white working class America.

Unfortunately, there is good reason, based on the history of Democrats wooing the white working class, to think that such a strategy won’t work out.

In the early post World War II period, from 1950 to the mid 1960’s, the primary method Democrats in the major industrial states used to mobilize white working class support for Democratic candidates was the neighborhood, block and precinct level Democratic “machines” that canvassed door to door to inform, mobilize and turn out voters in working class neighborhoods on election day.

There was virtually no “microtargeting” of any specific demographic subgroups like women or youth within this approach. The appeal was on the broadest community level: an appeal to white working peoples’ basic social identity as “the ordinary guys and gals” who had benefited from the policies of the New Deal and the growth of unionization. The Republicans, in contrast, were an alien “them” -– the wealthy people whose social universe was the golf club, the Chamber of Commerce luncheon, the affluent suburb and the fancy dress ball.

It was only with the decline of the large factories, the close-knit ethnic working class neighborhoods and the Democratic precinct organizations and the subsequent rise of TV advertising as the major form of political communication that demographic “targeting” became significant in political campaigns. At first, in the 1970’s, when there were still only three major TV networks, the subtlety that could be achieved in targeting was limited: a candidate could run one kind of political ad during a football game and another on a mid-morning cooking show, but that was about it. As the modern 500 channel cable universe and other niche advertising channels opened up, the opportunities for targeting specific audiences expanded substantially. But Democratic advertising to white working class audiences, in particular, remained largely limited to broad and generic traditional messages.

The “microtargeting” of particular voters that is now widely identified with the Obama campaign was actually first perfected by conservatives. As early as the late 1970’s, right-wing mailing list managers like Richard Viguerie made their “single issue” mailing lists (anti-abortion, anti-tax, anti-communist etc.) available to Republican candidates for “below the radar” messaging to specific groups. At the same time the 1980’s televangelists built massive contact lists of their contributors that, by the 1990’s, were being widely shared with conservative political candidates.

Progressives had similar single issue mailing lists (e.g. for environmental causes) and subscription lists of liberal magazines that Democratic candidates could access for appeals to the Democratic base, but it was on a substantially smaller scale than their conservative counterparts. Even in the 1996, 2000, and 2004 elections, Democratic appeals to the white working class, in particular, were rarely designed to exploit any kind of sophisticated demographic targeting.

The latest wrinkle in political targeting is, of course, the data-intensive, individual-level microtargeting employed by the Obama campaign. Based on the massive amount of digital data on individual Americans’ shopping choices that major companies like Sears, Macy’s and Walmart, and businesses like the local supermarket, pet store, toy store, drug store and dozens of others all collect with their ubiquitous “discount cards” and online shopping records, mathematical models can now be created that can not only identify miniscule demographic subgroups but even predict which specific individuals are more likely to be persuadable voters.

For all the breathless reporting about the success of the Obama data operation, however, it would be a mistake to think that this approach by itself can provide an adequate basis for a successful microtargeted appeal to demographic subgroups like white working class women or the young.

The reason is that Republican success in winning the support of white working class voters has actually been to a large extent based on using an updated form of the Democrats traditional neighborhood “machine” approach rather than on any elegant demographic microtargeting. Our New Republic article quoted one very perceptive description of the Republican presence in white working class communities across America:

Republicans’ everyday lives seem naturally woven into the fabric of the community in a way that the everyday lives of the left have not been since the Great Depression…working-class people encounter Republicans face-to-face at churches, all-you-can-eat spaghetti fund-raisers, fraternal organizations like the Elks Club and local small businesses… At the humble level of the small towns, local candidates are raised and groomed for state and national office…and it is from these local grassroots GOP business-based cartels that the army of campaign volunteers, political activists and spokesmen springs.

The Republican message communicated to these white working class voters and activists is not a series of distinct, demographically targeted messages to subgroups within white working class communities but rather a broad and inclusive appeal to white workers’ basic social identity as “good, honest, hard-working” people and to a widely shared set of traditional values –- values like patriotism, religious piety, support for small business and “the American way.”

This is clearly reflected in the rhetoric of the GOP’s best known and most compelling public figures. Sarah Palin’s speeches are not specifically targeted to women; on the contrary, their actual political content is largely indistinguishable from the broadcasts of unabashed male chauvinist Rush Limbaugh. In similar fashion, George W. Bush’s basic “I’m just a good old boy” persona in 2000 and 2004 was not calibrated to appeal to a younger audience than was Ronald Reagan’s similarly folksy persona in his 1980 and 1984 campaigns, despite the huge difference in their ages. A very substantial amount of the popularity Republicans achieved with white working class Americans over the last 40 years was quite emphatically based on appealing to white working people as a coherent and cohesive social group rather than seeking to target specific sub-populations such as women or youth within the larger demographic category.

Democrats must therefore be careful not to extend the undeniable fact that white working class women and younger workers are indeed more persuadable and are more open to Democratic ideas over to the notion that a strategy can be developed to precisely target just those particular subgroups within white working class America. On the contrary, a large part of any successful Democratic outreach to these voters will require speaking to them as cohesive social group with a strong and distinct social identity. To challenge the current Republican dominance among these voters, Dems will need a message that is inclusive and communitarian –- a message that speaks to the alternative values that coexist within white working class America, values like “common sense”, tolerance, compromise and compassion.

To be successful, Democrats will have to convince white working class Americans that Dems sincerely want to represent working Americans as a broad social group and not just the women and young people among them. Women and the young will inevitably be the most receptive to the Democratic message, but that message must not be addressed only to them.

Andy Levison is the author of the new book, The White Working Class Today: Who They Are, How They Think and How Progressives Can Regain Their Support.

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