The GOP Forgot Working Class Whites’ Votes (But Trump Didn’t)

An interesting feature of this year’s presidential election is Hillary Clinton’s heavy dependence on blacks and, to a slightly lesser degree, Hispanics voters.  Bernie Sanders has also been trolling for their votes.

If the 2016 Democrat candidate for the presidency has to depend on massive support in the black and Hispanic communities to carry the election, this would continue Democrats’ shift away from heavy dependence on white working-class voters. This historic transition was admitted by Obama’s advisor David Axelrod early in 2008, and was a feature of Obama’s quest for re-election in 2012.  Only 36% of working-class whites voted for him in 2012.

That is a far smaller percentage than Franklin D. Roosevelt reaped in four presidential elections between 1932 and 1944.  Indeed, the white working-class constituted the backbone of the New Deal coalition, which made the Democrat Party the majority party in America from the 1930s to the mid-1960s.

Today’s alienation between the Democratic Party and working-class whites is not the first occasion on which large percentages of the group voted for a Republican presidential candidate.  In the 1980s, for example, we heard much about the “Reagan Democrats,” who were mostly white blue collar workers outside the South who labored in so-called “rust belt” industries, jobs that would soon be gone with the wind.  Those Reagan Democrats contributed to the Gipper’s landslide victories in 1980 and 1984, and enabled George H. W. Bush (#41) to win the presidency in 1988. 

However, a combination of events changed this: straitened economic times – the recession of 1991-1992 – and especially shifts in the Democratic Party’s appeal while Bill Clinton was a key figure on the national scene. (Remember the now-defunct Democratic Leadership Council?).  Clinton and his associates in the DLC tried to moderate the Party’s ideological stance, and one consequence was a return of many working-class whites to the party of FDR, Harry Truman, and JFK.  (Mainstream media connivance with the Clintonistas didn’t help the GOP hold the Reagan Democrats.)

Once Clinton was longer the party’s presidential standard bearer, however, the Democrats reverted to the posture of Lyndon Johnson, who acknowledged that advocacy of pro-black issues would alienate Southern whites, and probably whites outside the South as well.  To a certain degree in 2000 and 2004, which became much more pronounced under Obama in 2008 and 2012, the Democratic Party visibly aligned itself with blacks and other minorities, in the process leaving working-class whites feeling deserted.

There are two odd, and initially, difficult to fathom, features of today’s political parties.  One focuses on the Democrats, the other, on the GOP.

First, it is puzzling that a political party whose elites have harped on the issue of increased income inequality in America, and repeatedly promised to rein in Wall Street fat cats in particular and the one-percenters in general as well as advocating soak-the-rich tax policies, would be so dismissive of the white working-class that was once a major part of that party’s base.  After all, are not white blue-collar workers also part of the ninety-nine percent whom Democrat elites claim to represent?

Yet Democrat elites have deserted working-class whites, and seek votes elsewhere.

The second puzzle surrounding the white working class is the -- so far -- apparent failure of the GOP to court their votes on a systematic basis.  Although some demographers claim the white working-class is “a dying breed” -- largely because the kinds of jobs they’ve typically held are disappearing -- they still comprise between 30 and 35 percent of the country’s population.  That means they would be a sizable bloc of votes to add to a party’s haul on Election Day.

When I was a young political scientist studying American voting behavior in graduate school, we were taught that any time a major political party abandoned a sizable bloc of its voting base, the opposition party would eagerly seek ways to appeal to potentially new supporters.  One recalls studies of Richard Nixon’s so-called Southern Strategy.  Nixon allegedly went where “the ducks are,” thereby winning narrowly in 1968 and big in 1972.

We read many studies of the topic.  Those works contended that American political parties were always seeking to attract blocs of votes that had been abandoned by the opposition.

Decades later, even though Democrat elites seem willing -- eager, some would say -- to turn their backs on a sizable segment of the electorate that once had been key to the party’s majority status, the Republican establishment seems to be doing little, if anything, to attract those people’s votes.   Why? 

There are several reasons, none of which reflects well on the GOP establishment, but I will focus on three.

It is possible that one reason why GOP elites eschew appeals to working-class whites is that a sizable portion of the latter allegedly back Donald Trump.  The Republican establishment’s desire for relaxed immigration policies and free trade, because many are in thrall to big business, is anathema to blue-collar workers.  Because many GOP elites regard Trump as unacceptable, they may resist adding any segment of the populace alleged to back the Donald into the party.

The Republican Party has long been known as the party of business.  Even at the height of the Great Depression, which had seriously tarnished businessmen’s reputation, the GOP clung to their (financial and ideological) coattails, and lost its majority party standing as one consequence.

By 2016, big business has long since abandoned the GOP.  As big business learned how to work with, and even benefit from, big government, business types increasingly aligned with the party of big government, i.e., the Democrats.  (For now, small businesses that can’t afford to hire armies of tax lawyers to evade oppressive tax rates, and are stifled by draconian government regulations, are sticking with the GOP.)  Unlike labor unions, who donate almost entirely to Democrats’ campaigns, large corporations split their donations between the two major parties.

If dialing for big bucks is more efficient than Richard Viguerie-style direct mail appeals that raise small donations (albeit in droves), the GOP elites’ panting after the so-called donor class, i.e. the deep pockets who can give large sums to campaign coffers, might make sense.  Nevertheless, they don’t seem to have heard that the Sanders campaign relies mostly on small money donations, or that lavishly-funded campaigns don’t always succeed.  (Ask Jeb Bush.)

Harvesting millions of new votes from a previously untapped bloc of citizens will win more elections than soliciting a few big contributions that may be equaled, or even topped, by donations to the other party.  In addition, don’t assume that big bucks are always spent wisely in a campaign.  (Ask Jeb Bush.)

The Democrats are forfeiting millions of working-class whites’ votes.  The Republican Party should appeal to them, reap the votes, and laugh all the way to the inauguration.