Democrats have problems with white working class

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 5, 2012 

— The Democratic Party’s 2012 convention may be energizing women and minorities, but it may not help them with the white working class.

Throughout the convention’s first two days, the party highlighted its diversity, with meetings of different racial or ethnic minorities, and a showcase of women and minorities speaking from the stage. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro was the keynote speaker, the first Hispanic ever to grab the coveted spot. At the same time, the convention boasts that four out of 10 delegates are African-American or Hispanic, and half are women.

Convention organizers insist working-class whites have hardly been forgotten. Former President Bill Clinton was Wednesday’s main event, and the program featured a number of “American heroes,” including auto workers who credit President Barack Obama for saving their jobs.

It may not be enough.

“This is an issue we’ve been dealing with since the mid-‘70s: How do you appeal to white males. And we’ve never come up with the right formula for it,” said Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina.

“Democrats have a problem with white middle-class voters,” added Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, which has studied that electorate in depth. “Those voters are very disappointed and very critical of Obama as president.”

Working class convention-goers say more effort is needed.

“I believe the president’s losing support among the blue-collar workers. A lot of people feel he promised a lot, and they’re angry,” said Bob Miller, an electrician from Hatfield, Pa.

Many people Miller knows were already sympathetic to Republican social positions – opposition to strict gun control, for instance – but backed Obama in 2008 because of his message of economic hope.

Obama rewrote recent political history that year. Until the late 1970s, blue-collar whites were usually strong Democrats. They tended to be labor union members, often with ethnic urban roots, and came from families that had voted for Democratic presidential candidates for generations.

A variety of factors pushed them away. Democrats became champions of affirmative action, which many whites thought threatened their jobs and promotions. Cultural conservatives were often uncomfortable with the party’s pledge of easier access to abortion, gun control, and gay rights. Democrats also seemed willing to keep tax rates up and to funnel dollars to the less wealthy, dollars that workers felt were often going to irresponsible people who were not working.

President Ronald Reagan successfully tapped this vein, creating an army of “Reagan Democrats,” a term that still lingers. Democrats occasionally won them back in tough economic times. In 2008, Republicans struggled to only a 46 percent to 44 percent edge, according to Pew.

This year, the Republican advantage has returned. A Pew survey released Aug. 23 found white working-class voters this year preferring Republicans 52 percent to 40 percent.

The gain among whites crosses many lines. Democrats gained a big lead among whites with family incomes below $30,000 in 2008. Today, that lead is gone.

Whites earning between $30,000 and $74,999, generally considered the working middle class, had split between the two parties four years ago. Republicans now have a 17 percentage point advantage.

The Democrats’ answer is that the convention is putting strong emphasis on economic security for the middle class and portraying Republicans as hopelessly out of touch.

“We’re going to have an honest conversation about where we were in 2008,” said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt. “We’ve made progress.”

Democrats are reminding delegates how Obama pushed for the auto industry bailout, while Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was opposed. They’re telling viewers how Obama would maintain current income tax rates for people earning less than $250,000. Romney would continue current, lower rates for everyone, including the wealthy.

The Obama forces tout the 2010 federal health care law, which should make it easier for millions to obtain coverage by 2014. Romney wants to repeal it.

Dave Green is ready to spread the word. He’s president of United Auto Workers Local 1714 in Ohio, a crucial state where votes of his 1,500 members could help decide the election. The Lordstown, Ohio, Chevy plant, for years a popular presidential campaign stop, is running three shifts, up from one about four years ago.

Obama carried Ohio in 2008, but in 2010, Ohioans turned against Democrats and elected a conservative Republican governor and U.S. senator.

“A lot of people just thought the economy didn’t get good enough fast enough,” Green explained. “And a lot still vote single issue, against gays, for God and for guns.”

Democrats are carefully confident. “I think, really, it’s a matter of economics,” said John Podesta, who served as Clinton’s chief of staff. “The real question is can he close the gap. I think that, in part . . . happens when people understand the consequences of his economic programs.”

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