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.
Olsen, however, said both parties still have a hard time connecting with moderate voters, which has resulted in the large power shifts in Congress that have characterized recent elections.
“We have seen in the last five years more frequent Senate shifts in a row than we have seen at any time at least since the beginnings of the New Deal. I mean, it has now become normal to think that each election is going to be a wave. That’s not normal,” Olsen said. “The first party that figures that out and a way to reconcile their base with the middle rather than put them at conflict with one another is the party that’s going to be much happier over the next 10 years than they are right now.”
Joy Reid, host of MSNBC’s The Reid Report, said Democrats focused too much on trying to appeal to minority voters, which, in turn, pushed away the white-working class.
“I think that one of the issues the Democrats face is that indeed they don’t have a coherent economic message that appeals to white, working-class voters,” Reid said. “So what winds up filling the void is the optics of what they’re actually doing, which is heavily pursuing non-white voters and courting them with things like immigration reform, which is off-putting particularly to older white voters.”
Reid also criticized the Democrats for failing to highlight those parts of the economy that have improved under the Obama administration.
“Democrats never messaged on the economy. I can’t think of a single race in this cycle where Democrats messaged positively on the macroeconomic data. Now people’s personal perception of the economy is one thing, but telling the story of the economy is quite another,” she said, “and Democrats just massively failed to do that, and I think that was part of their problem.”
E.J. Dionne Jr., the event’s moderator and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the challenge for the Democrats is to mobilize their base while regaining their appeal among working-class whites.
“If the Democrats forget about the white-working class they can forget about every midterm election forever. But I also think that’s a fundamental problem; they can’t win without them. But I don’t think appealing to the two groups is necessarily contradictory,” Dionne said.
The PRRI poll also shows that 22 percent of Republican voters made up their minds in the final week of the campaign. By contrast, nearly one-third – 31 percent – of Democratic voters say they decided in the final seven days of the campaign.
While 20 percent of Obama supporters did not vote and stayed home, only 14 percent of Romney supporters did the same. In addition, 8 percent of Obama supporters switched their vote in support of Republican candidates.
“A combination of some switching with lower turnout rates added up to a clear Republican advantage [in the midterms],” said Robert P. Jones, chief executive and founder of PRRI.