Midterm Study Finds GOP Tightens Grip on White, Working-Class Voters

WASHINGTON – The Republican Party’s big wins in the 2014 midterm elections are due to the GOP’s substantial advantage among white, working-class voters, a recent poll indicates.

Sixty-one percent of white, working-class voters – those earning an hourly wage and without a college degree – said they voted for Republicans in 2014, while only a quarter supported Democratic candidates, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). The poll surveyed 1,399 individuals before and after the midterm elections.

There was a significant drop-off in white, working-class support for Democratic candidates from 2012. That year, Democratic candidates received 35 percent of the white, working-class vote. In comparison, 55 percent of voters in this group supported Republican candidates, giving the GOP a six percentage point gain in this demographic in 2014.

Democrats have long been losing their hold on white, working-class areas, where incomes lag behind the national average and college graduates are relatively scarce. The Democrats’ declining support among these voters began decades ago. In 1993, Democrats held 36 of the 71 districts in largely white, middle-class districts, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. Today, Democrats hold just 11 of 70 such districts among the House’s 435 seats.

Speaking at an event marking the release of the survey, Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, said GOP candidates did a better job of appealing to white, working-class voters in the North than their Democratic opponents. He noted that this helped change support within this demographic in the northern states, where it is widely considered a swing vote, in favor of Republican candidates and resulted in the widespread Republican success in the midterm elections.

“I doubt that came in the South,” Olsen said. “My guess without looking at data is that it substantially came in the North…. White, working-class voters, outside of the South, tend to be in play between the two parties. They tend to be morally moderate, which is to say that they have conflicting views on social issues but are moved on patriotism and issues of opportunity, and they’re moved on issues of support in the economy.”

Seventy-two percent of working-class whites believe that “the U.S. economic system generally favors the wealthy.” In the midterm elections, 64 percent of these men and women voted for Republican House candidates.

Olsen said even more impressive than the GOP’s gain among white, working-class voters were the Republican gubernatorial victories in states that President Obama won in 2012.

“Among the governors, with the exception of Rick Scott, they did substantially better,” he said.

Olson cited the victory of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who won his re-election by six points, even though Mitt Romney lost in 2012 by five points. He also mentioned Gov. Rick Snyder’s re-election in Michigan, where Romney lost by nine points in 2012.

“What did they do that was different? Rick Snyder signed a minimum wage increase. Every Republican governor in a purple state has either endorsed Medicaid expansion, or in the case of Scott Walker, used a particularly generous state Medicaid program to take advantage of the federal exchange to increase healthcare enrollment without taking any federal dollars,” he continued.