Democrats are the party of the middle class; that’s an axiom liberal politicians and pundits pound away on the Sunday morning talk shows pervasively. Democratic Rep. Alan Lowenthal reiterated such sentiments at the liberal Netroots Nation last summer. Yet, is it still true?
One of the many reasons House Democrats are less than enthused about Rep. Nancy Pelosi remaining as House Minority leader is that they felt her messaging didn’t resonate with middle class voters.
As for the gender gap, Republicans in the most competitive races this cycle won women voters, split them equally, or lost by single digit margins. That’s not exactly an apocalyptic reading of the tealeaves.
I looked at the exits polls for women voters and those making $50k-$100k a year, which is a good range to represent the middle class vote, for all the competitive Senate and gubernatorial races this cycle.
Colorado Senate Race: Sen. Mark Udall (D) and Rep. Cory Gardner (R)
- Udall wins women 52/44
- $50k-$100k: Gardner takes middle class vote 57/40
Arkansas Senate Race: Sen. Mark Pryor (D) and Rep. Tom Cotton (R)
- Cotton beats Pryor with women by 10 points 53/43
- $50k-$100k: Cotton wins middle class vote 61/35
Kentucky Senate Race: Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) and Alison Lundergan Grimes (D)
- McConnell actually ended up beating Grimes with women voters 50/47
- $50k-$100k: McConnell easily beat Grimes with middle class voters 61/37
North Carolina Senate Race: Sen. Kay Hagan (D) and Thom Tillis (R)
- Hagan beat Tillis with women 54/42
- $50k-$100k: Hagan lost the middle class vote, which she won in 2008, to Tillis 52/44.
Iowa Senate Race: Rep. Bruce Braley (D) and Iowa State Sen. Joni Ernst (R)
- Braley and Ernst split women voters 49/49 respectively.
- $50k-$100k: Ernst handily beat Braley with middle class voters 55/43
Alaska Senate Race: Sen. Mark Begich (D) and Dan Sullivan (R)
- Begich slightly beat Sullivan with women voters 48/46; He won women 55/41 over Ted Stevens in 2008.
- $50k-$100k: Sullivan won these voters 49/44 over Begich. In 2008, Begich pretty much split the vote with Stevens.
Virginia Senate Race: Sen. Mark Warner (D) and Ed Gillespie (R)
- Warner won women voters handily over Gillespie 55/43.
- $50k-$100k: Gillespie won the middle class vote 54/44 over Warner. Warner, who won with 65 percent of the vote in 2008, barely won re-election with 0.4 percent of the vote. He also lost the coal counties and Loudon County in Northern Virginia, which went to Obama in 2008 and 2012.
- If a little more money was spent in the Old Dominion, it’s possible that this could have been Republicans’ 10th senate pickup.
Louisiana Senate Race: Sen. Mary Landrieu (D), Rep. Bill Cassidy (R), and Rob Maness (R)
- Women voters, who represented 56 percent of the electorate in Louisiana, split three ways, with Landrieu taking 48 percent of the vote, Cassidy took 36 percent, and Maness clinched 13 percent. Landrieu won the plurality, but, in all, 49 percent of women decided to throw their support behind a Republican.
- $50k-$100k: With middle class voters, Landrieu took 39 percent, Cassidy got 43 percent, and Maness received 16 percent. Cassidy wins the plurality. Again, overall, 59 percent of middle class vote went to the Republicans.
Georgia Senate Race: Michelle Nunn (D) and David Perdue (R)
- Nunn won women voters over Perdue 53/45.
- $50k-$100k: With middle class voters, 52/46 broke for Perdue.
Kansas Senate Race: Sen. Pat Roberts (R), Greg Orman (I), and Randall Baston (L)
- Roberts won women voters 50/46 over Orman; Baston clinched 4 percent of the vote.
- $50k-$100k: Roberts managed to win 51 percent of the middle class vote, with Orman clinching 46 percent and Baston nabbing 3 percent.
Wisconsin Gubernatorial Race: Gov. Scott Walker (R) and Mary Burke (D)
- Burke won women voters 54/45 over Walker.
- $50k-$100k: Walker easily beat Burke with middle class voters 57/42.
Michigan Gubernatorial Race: Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and former Rep. Mark Schauer (D)
- Women voters backed Schauer over Snyder 53/45.
- $50k-$100k: Snyder won this demographic 52/47 over Schauer.
Illinois Gubernatorial Race: Gov. Pat Quinn (D) and Bruce Rauner (R)
- Women voters back Quinn 51/44 over Rauner.
- $50k-$100k: Despite the Quinn campaign’s attempts to “Romney” Rauner over his wealth, he was able to beat Quinn 55/44 with middle class voters. Also, Rauner won 101 of Illinois’ 102 counties, which is a feat that has not been seen since 1994.
Georgia Gubernatorial Race: Gov. Nathan Deal (R) and Jason Carter (D)
- Carter won women voters 52/46 over Deal.
- $50k-$100k: Deal was able to clinch 52 percent of the middle class vote to Carter’s 46 percent.
Kansas Gubernatorial Race: Gov. Sam Brownback (R) and Paul Davis (D)
- Davis and Brownback virtually split both demographic down the middle. Davis slightly beat Brownback with women and middle class voters ($50k-$100k) 49/48.
- Kansas is a weird state. While the state been dominated by Republicans virtually since the beginning, it has a vocal and effective moderate wing, which has been able to block conservative legislation when members of the state legislature vote with the Democrats.
- Brownback ended up beating Davis 50/46, but not after nearly 200 sitting and former Kansas Republicans lawmakers endorsing him and Greg Orman; he survived what appears to be a revolt.
Florida Gubernatorial Race: Gov. Rick Scott (R) and Charlie Crist (D)
- Crist won women voters and the middle class vote over Scott 49/47.
With the exception of Crist and Brownback, every Republican in these competitive gubernatorial and senate races won the middle class vote. It could be due to the fact that Democrats had no national message to rally around given President Obama’s dismal approval numbers. While critics can deride the results by saying the field in 2014 was much more favorable to Republicans, Iowa, Colorado, North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alaska were not sure bets, despite Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alaska being states where Romney won by 10+ points or more in 2012.
In Iowa, the Democrats were incredibly effective in maximizing turnout in the 2008 and 2012 elections; they ended up winning the state in both years.
North Carolina is a state that splits right down the middle; Colorado has the same level of volatility regarding elections.
Virginia was a curveball given that this was supposed to be a Warner beat down, which never came to fruition on election night. Instead, he barely won re-election in a state that, like North Carolina, has become purple.
It seemed as if the middle class abandoned the Democrats. But do Democrats have some serious work ahead to win these voters? I take you back to Molly Ball’s piece in the Atlantic, where she noted that the GOP wins the over $50k demographic on a regular basis; based on national exit polls, the Democrats have only won the $50k-$100k voting bloc twice since 1994, once in 2006 and again in 2008; both being Democratic wave years.
OK, let’s include the working class, which expands the category to Americans who make less than $100k.
Alaska: 47/46 Begich
- Arkansas: 53/43 Cotton
- Colorado: 48/45 Gardner
- Georgia: 51/ 47 Nunn
- Iowa: 51/46 Ernst
- Kansas: 51/45/4 Roberts
- Kentucky: 53/43 McConnell
- Louisiana: 49/36/13 -> 49/49 Landrieu ties with GOP
- North Carolina: 51/44 Hagan
- Florida: 50/44 Crist
- Illinois: 50/46 Quinn
- Kansas: 48/48 tie between Brownback and Davis
- Michigan: 51/48 Snyder
- Wisconsin: 50/48 Walker
So, even with the working class vote included, Republicans were able to either be competitive or win them outright. As you can see, overall, Democrats enjoy strong support with those making less than $50k a year, which explains how some of the comfortable leads Republicans had with the $50k-$100k demographic were chipped away. Yet, that’s mostly attributed to black and other minority working class voters; it’s the massive bloc of white working class voters that left the Democrats in droves.
Some liberals know they need work on winning the support of white working class voters, but others have dismissed it as a southern problem; that’s a monumental mistake.
In all, it looks like the Democrats, for all their economic populism, have hit a ceiling in their messaging. That being said, liberals are hoping to re-engage with this lost cohort that has drifted towards the Republicans. If not, winning future elections could become more difficult.
Then again, Republicans shouldn’t take this group for granted either. America’s working class is more diverse and has more characteristics to it that didn’t exist in the Reagan era (via Washington Monthly):
[I]f by blue-collar jobs we mean jobs that involve routine and repetitive tasks, require limited skills, are closely supervised, and offer no autonomy during working hours, then it turns out that half of all white male workers and 40 percent of white working women are blue collar. Far from working on factory floors, more and more workers are employed in service-sector jobs like health care, leisure and hospitality, and, particularly, professional and business services.
If Democrats cannot figure out how to appeal to today’s working-class voters, then they don’t deserve to lead. Nearly all of the people in these jobs have not seen a raise in years. The majority of them, who now work in the service sector—maids and housekeepers, waitresses and hostesses, cooks and dishwashers, counter attendants and ticket takers, janitors and hairdressers and child care workers—earn, on average, about $400 a week.
In some instances, today’s post-industrial members of the working class need the same things from government that their counterparts did in the industrial era: a safe workplace, affordable health care, and a sound pension system, for example. But other issues are comparatively new.
Female labor force participation now equals male participation. A majority of households are made up of unmarried couples and parents, and mothers are the sole or primary providers in 40 percent of American homes. All the issues surrounding the balancing of work and family life, including child care and pre-K education, speak directly to the needs of today’s working class.
As with anything in politics, nothing is permanent. Republicans may have benefitted from Democrats dropping the ball, but with this complex mesh of issues that makes up the new American working class; there are plenty of inroads Democrats can take.