January 2013, Week 2


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Mon, 14 Jan 2013 21:51:21 -0500
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The White Vote in 2012 & the Obama Coalition

Jack Metzgar

Posted on January 14, 2013 


I've had it with "the white working class."  Not the
actually existing part of the working class that is
white, which is composed of complex and interesting
people most of whom don't vote like I think they
should, but rather the fictional character who got so
much attention during this year's election campaign.

The fictional character is a white guy who works in a
decrepit factory or drives a truck.  He drinks
boilermakers (not wine and never a latte) and is good
at bowling rather than golf.  Depending on political
point of view, he is a "culturally confused but
good-hearted racist" or a "salt-of-the-earth real
American who loves God and guns and hates both gays and
Wall-Street bankers."

As a demographic category that divides white voters
without bachelor's degrees from those who have that
"middle-class" credential, the "white working class"
concept makes sense to me, but only if its use fulfills
two conditions that the political media apparently
cannot manage:

First, that we always keep in mind that "white working
class" is a demographic category that clumps together
more than 45 million voters who share two
characteristics and only two - race, as conventionally
defined, and the absence of a bachelor's degree.  The
category includes women and men of all religions (and
varying levels of religious commitment) and regions.
They come from big cities, suburbs, small towns, and
isolated shacks in all parts of the country.  It
includes Bill Gates and other fabulously rich people
who never completed bachelor's degrees, and it leaves
out the many factory workers, truck drivers,
waitresses, and retail clerks who did. That is, like
all concepts, "white working class" is a convenience
for getting a hold on the big picture, but it grossly
simplifies a much more complex and varied social
reality.  We need to constantly remind ourselves that
there is not now, never has been, and never could be a
"typical" white working-class person. Second, that as a
demographic category for the purposes of electoral
analysis, "white working class" is valuable only as
part of a comprehensive discussion of the white vote in
U.S. elections.

I've made the first point before, more than once.  Here
let me concentrate on the second by detailing my
conclusions about how the concept has played out in the
2012 presidential election.

After much pre-election discussion of how the "white
working-class" would vote, the major news media who
commissioned the massive election-day exit poll have
not reported on their websites how this group actually
voted.  In fact, the websites listing that information
-- voter-category by voter-category, state by state -- in
2012 have less than 1/10th the information that CNN had
(and still has) on its web site for 2008.   But here's
what I can report based on what is available on Fox
News, CNN, and the New York Times, plus some numbers
from reporters who have access to the poll's internals
- most importantly, "The Obama Coalition in the 2012
Election and Beyond" by Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin.

Class in itself had almost no impact on how people
voted for president in 2012.  The middle class (folks
of all shades and colors with at least a bachelor's
degree) voted 50/48 for President Obama, and the
somewhat larger group of voters with no bachelor's
degree, the working class, voted 51/47 for the
President.  Thus, because the middle and working
classes voted basically the same, class by itself did
not matter. Race, on the other hand, makes a huge
difference in how people vote.  Nonwhites (Black,
Hispanic/Latino, Asian and Other) voted a little more
than 80% for Obama while only 39% of whites did that -
a difference of more than 40 percentage points.  Both
the middle class and the working class gave Obama
slight majorities based primarily on nonwhite voters
who offset his 20-point loss among whites. Among
whites, the white working class is far from unique in
giving Mitt Romney substantial majorities.  Nationally,
working-class whites gave Obama only 36% of their vote,
but middle-class whites, though slightly more favorable
at 42%, also gave Romney a large majority.  Other
demographics within the white vote show similar
patterns.  Though there are important differences among
white voters, most white demographics vote strongly
Republican.  For example: Women gave Obama a 55%
majority, but not white women, who voted 56/42 for
Romney.  White men, on the other hand, were even more
strongly for Romney (62/35).  The gender gap is
actually bigger among Blacks and Latinos than it is
among whites.  Black women voted 9 points more for
Obama than their male counterparts; Latino women, 11
points more, and white women, 7 points more. Obama won
a bare majority among Catholics (50/48), but lost white
Catholics by 19 points - which, however, is a lot
better than he did among white Protestants who he lost
by 39 points.  On the other hand, Obama won substantial
majorities among whites who self-identified as
non-Christian or as having no religion. Obama also
famously won big (60/37) among young people aged 18-29,
but the majority of whites in this age group voted for
Romney (51/44).  On the other hand, no other white age
group gave Obama more than 39% of their vote. Where
whites live matters a lot.  There were no exit polls in
some states this year, and so far there is no breakdown
of voters by both race and education (as there was in
previous years).  From what we have, however, it is
clear that the national white vote of 39% for the
President hides a lot of variation - whites in Vermont
and Alabama vote very differently (66% vs. 15% for
Obama in 2012), as do whites in Iowa and Missouri (51%
vs. 32% for Obama).  Likewise, whites in large and
medium-sized metropolitan areas (250,000 and above)
vote more Democratic than whites in the small-town and
rural areas of the same states.

Though shrinking as a proportion of the population and
thus of the electorate, whites are still a very large
majority (72% of the 2012 electorate), and the 39% of
us who voted for President Obama provided the bulk of
his votes in 2012 (36 million vs. 29 million from
nonwhites). But our voices would not have been heard
without strong turnouts (against formidable efforts at
voter suppression) and lopsided votes for Obama among
nonwhites.  On the other hand, their voices would have
been drowned out - and worse - without us.  That's what
a multiracial coalition looks like.  Though its weakest
link, the white working class is a significant portion
of the coalition, and not just in the Midwest
battlegrounds.  Of Obama's 65 million votes in 2012,
30% came from whites with bachelor's degrees and 25%
(more than 16 million) came from those without them.

Part of the reason progressive Democrats have focused
on the white working class over the past decade is that
among whites, they are much more likely to benefit from
progressive economic programs than middle-class whites
- programs like universal health care, enhancements of
earned income and child tax credits, infrastructure
spending, green manufacturing, and unemployment
benefits and food stamps.  This has not worked yet to
produce more white working-class voters for Dems, at
least not at a national level, but the logic is good
because all these programs disproportionately benefit
working-class Blacks, Latinos, and Asians as well.  And
that basic approach, as qualified and compromised as it
has played out in practice, is working so far
politically, if not economically.  As Teixeira and
Halpin conclude:

President Obama and his progressive allies have
successfully stitched together a new coalition in
American politics, not by gravitating toward the right
or downplaying the party's diversity in favor of white
voters.  Rather, they did it by uniting disparate
constituencies - including an important segment of the
white working class - behind a populist, progressive
vision of middle-class economics and social advancement
for all people regardless of race, gender, ethnicity,
religion, or sexual orientation.

I find the Democrats' obsessive use of "middle class"
irritating, and I'm not sure they've articulated
anything I want to call "a populist, progressive
vision" (as opposed to some of their actual programs),
but it is worth appreciating the enormous
accomplishment, however fragile and flawed, of what
Teixeira and Halpin call "a multiracial, multiethnic,
cross-class coalition" that put Barack Obama in the
White House for a second term.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies


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