A recent Pew poll that found a significant drop in Obama’s support among working class, non-college educated whites has been widely interpreted as alarming news for the White House. “Obama is losing the white working class,” wrote The New Republic‘s Nate Cohn, a refrain Harry Enten echoed in The Guardian.
Cohn and Enten could be overhyping the results of this particular Pew poll. While it does show that Obama’s approval rating among white working class voters (or “white workers”) fell from 35 percent last November to 26 percent in late July, a similar Pew survey only a few weeks earlier on June 12th showed 34 percent of the “less than college” white voters still approving of Obama’s performance, a decline of only 1 percent from the 35 percent recorded by Pew last November or 2 percent from the 36 percent level of support Obama actually received in the 2012 elections. Since it seems unlikely that a full 9 percent decline in Obama’s approval rating suddenly occurred in a few weeks between June and July, there is a possibility that Pew’s finding of such a sharp decline in the latest survey is exaggerated.
But if Pew’s even partially right, it’s still a huge problem. As Ruy Teixeira and I have argued, white working class voters still represent a very large demographic voting group, so even a three or four percent decline in their support for a Democratic candidate in the 2016 elections could easily spell the difference between victory and defeat.
Why might such a decline have occurred? Extensive research on the views of the white working class suggests that, if Pew’s findings were real, the most plausible cause of the decline would be the president’s increased emphasis on social issues in the past six months. However, this doesn’t mean that Democrats should be quieter or reverse course on social issues. Rather, they should simply be more targeted in how they sell themselves to the white working class.
Beginning in January, three things happened and, just as importantly, one didn’t. First, Obama became very visibly and forcefully identified with the demands for gun control in the aftermath of the Newtown, Connecticut shootings. Second, immigration reform leaped to the center of national political debate. Third, marriage equality and racially-charged issues (voting rights, profiling) became the subject of widely discussed court cases. Finally, issues of importance to white working class Americans did not receive significant national attention.
The issues that got attention were are all of clear, direct and substantial interest to particular elements of Obama’s “new” coalition of minorities, the young, single women and college educated professionals. None, however, has any strong appeal to white working class Americans.
Second, a substantial group of white working class Americans see the key issues of guns and immigration through a class lens, in the sense of a sharp division between the values and perspectives of white working people and those of well to do professionals and affluent “limousine liberals.” Ethnographic field studies since the 1970’s (see here, here and here) have consistently found that a significant number of white working class Americans perceive a pervasive liberal attitude of disdain and self-righteous condescension toward gun owners and view this attitude as an elitist view that is far easier to uphold when one lives in a gated community, isolated suburb, idyllic college town or apartment building with 24 hour doorman.
Equally, the progressive view that citizenship for undocumented immigrants is a simple matter of basic humanitarian compassion seems to many white working people (see here and here) a perspective that is far easier to embrace when one does not live in close proximity to any immigrants (or any poor people at all for that matter) or directly compete with immigrants for jobs or social services.
Progressives are frequently unaware or indifferent to this class critique, but they are widely and openly discussed in white working class conversation.
Third, these are issues that provoke powerful emotional responses. Opinion polls consistently show that hostility to the undocumented is one of the strongest emotional issues for some white working Americans. In the 2011 Pew Political Typology Survey, for example, which polled a very large sample on a wide variety of issues, clear majorities of white working people expressed negative opinions about undocumented immigrants, a higher level of hostility than on all other cultural issues. Other broad surveys have shown similar results. Although white workers struggle to balance compassion and self-interest, there is an undeniable current of anger and frustration. Progressive emphasis on the rights of gays and African Americans fits quite comfortably into an overall narrative that liberals are generally more concerned about other elements of their coalition than they are about white working class Americans.
It is therefore quite plausible that, even though Obama did not actually choose gun violence and immigration as his second term priorities but rather found them thrust upon him, the fight over those issues may have persuaded some white working class Americans that Obama abandoned them.
The opinion data about white working class Americans’ views on Obama’s gun proposals and the proposed immigration bill seem quite consistent with the possibility that both may have reduced Obama’s popularity among white workers. Data from Pew surveys show that both the gun proposals and proposed immigration bill have been significantly more unpopular with white working class Americans than they are with more white-collar whites. In a Pew survey in January, for example, only 29 percent of college graduates with an opinion felt Obama’s gun proposals went “too far. In contrast, 40 percent of individuals with less than a college education felt that they did. The same pattern appears with attitudes toward the proposed immigration bill. In May 2013, only 32 percent of college graduates with an opinion opposed the immigration reform proposals while roughly half of working class Americans with an opinion did.
And these poll results very dramatically understate the real degree of white working class opposition to both these initiatives because respondents include both whites and minorities. Minorities support both expanded gun regulations and immigration reform at substantially higher levels than do white Americans. As a result, if figures for white working class Americans alone were available, they would show a substantially greater level of opposition to what shows up in the above numbers. In both cases, clear majorities would be found in opposition.
Many progressives are extremely reluctant to accept the notion that Obama’s stances on cultural issues such as gun control and immigration might be causing a decline in his job approval, as this would seem to imply that progressives must “move to the center” on cultural issues in order to win over white workers. But that’s not so, because the seemingly natural inference is based a misunderstanding of the structure of white working class opinion.
A systematic program of polling and focus group research by Democracy Corps demonstrated that white working class opinion is actually divided into three extremely distinct sub-groups –- a relatively progressive group that already votes Democratic, a group of conservative true believers who will never support progressives or Democrats regardless of any centrist tack, and a group of “open-minded” or “tolerant” white working Americans who hold a variety of culturally traditional views but are still open to voting Democratic on other grounds.
This third, “open-minded” group is the “persuadable” sector of the white working class. Democrats need to do two things if they’re interested in winning them over.
First, while they do not need to abandon or deeply compromise their own values and beliefs, they must be willing to accept a diversity of opinion on various cultural issues within the Democratic coalition. A “big tent” Democratic coalition that is large enough to win national elections must also be large enough to include Americans who hold a variety of culturally traditional views but who are also tolerant and willing to vote for candidates who hold views that differ from their own.
There are progressive Democratic candidates who have successfully held together such coalitions in the past. Ted Kennedy, for example, despite his deeply progressive stances on a wide range of social and cultural issues, was returned to the Senate again and again by a coalition that included not only the affluent professionals and PhDs of Cambridge and Beacon Hill but also the white working class Irish Catholics in places like South Boston.
The secret of building electoral coalitions of this kind has always been for progressive candidates to overcome the perception that they are liberal elitists who do not understand or care about the economic problems of white workers. In today’s circumstances, the critical challenge is for progressive candidates to convincingly display a sincere and genuine understanding of how working people have been affected in their day-to-day lives by what Stan Greenberg has called “the new American economy” post-Great Recession. Based on a large series of focus groups with white working class people –- the most recent conducted in Columbus, Ohio –- Stan, James Carville and Erica Seifert have mapped the profound changes that have occurred in how white working class people now view the economy. In short:
Americans are living in a new economy — one in which jobs do not pay enough to live on what they used to — and barely keep up with prices at the grocery store, student loan payments, and childcare expenses. Voters have moved to a post-recession understanding of how pay and prices balance out in their household budgets. Because their understanding of the economy is no longer situated in the temporary reductions of the recession but a seemingly permanent assessment about jobs, they now have very different assumptions about life chances, opportunity, income, and equity.
It’s worth reading the whole report to grasp the subtitles of this new white working class perspective, as doing so gives a clear sense of what sorts of pitches for progressives policies white workers are interested in hearing.
The facts are simple: white working class voters are a key swing group for the 2016 elections. While the Democratic base itself can be mobilized by dramatizing the absolutely appalling consequences of a Republican victory, Democrats who want to head off a blowout loss among white working class voters will need to devote disciplined and sustained attention to the task of winning their trust and support from now until the beginning of the next presidential election.
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.