The Politics of the White Working Class in the 2012 Election

In New Hampshire, Rick Santorum is attempting to move beyond his familiar identity as the social conservative's dream candidate, by emphasizing a carefully calibrated conservative version of economic populism.
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In New Hampshire, Rick Santorum is attempting to move beyond his familiar identity as the social conservative's dream candidate, by emphasizing a carefully calibrated conservative version of economic populism. In an attempt to woo working-class voters in a state where appeals to faith will not resonate as strongly as they did in Iowa, Santorum is casting himself as the blue-collar candidate, committed to curing the ailments of the working class while cutting taxes and balancing budgets.

In a speech last week, Santorum reiterated his promise to find economic solutions that benefit everyone, not just the rich. "I also believe we as Republicans have to look at those who are not doing well in society," he explained. While Santorum is unlikely to make it past the Republican primary, his instincts that there is opportunity in appealing to New Hampshire's white working-class voters with government measures to improve economic mobility is surely right in the current economic climate. But appealing to this group -- which constitutes 23% of the general population -- presents some challenges for both parties.

For Republican candidates, such appeals run counter to the Tea Party orthodoxy of smaller government and tax cuts, many of which would disproportionately benefit the wealthy. Santorum's proposals that attend to the problems of white working class families are cutting against the grain. A new analysis shows, for example, that Mitt Romney's tax plan would cut taxes for the rich, while households making less than $20,000 a year would see their taxes rise by more than 60%. Many of the white working class do not fall into the latter category, but none have an annual household income of more than $75,000. And Romney's plan is downright moderate in terms of tax cuts for the rich, compared to the some of the other tax proposals that have been introduced.

For Democratic candidates, attracting white working class voters has been a difficult proposition. Nearly half (48%) of white working class Americans identify as conservative, and they are significantly more likely than the general population to identify with evangelical Christianity and to be Biblical literalists. The past few election years weren't hopeful for the Democrats: in 2008, Obama lost the white working class vote by 18 points, and in 2010, Congressional Democrats suffered a 30-point deficit among the same population.

According to some progressive strategists, these voters are also vital to Obama's reelection prospects. Last year, Thomas B. Edsall and Ruy Teixiera both predicted that white working class voters will surge to the Republican party in 2012, with potentially fatal consequences. "There will be a lot of white working class voters showing up at the polls next November," Teixiera explained in a piece for the New Republic last summer, "and the degree to which they support (or abandon) President Obama could very well make or break his reelection."

But the white working class, despite stereotypes, is not overwhelmingly supportive of the Tea Party; only 24% say that they share values with the Tea Party. Nor are they the foot soldiers of the Christian Right; only 32% consider themselves part of the Christian conservative movement. Moreover, with the economy still struggling, economic issues are likely to take precedence over culture war issues in the 2012 election.

This time around, Democrats may have a considerable advantage over Republicans because their values are more aligned with the white working class on some of the most salient economic issues: income and wealth inequality. Perhaps because they are more likely than most to report being in poor or fair financial condition, white working class Americans are far more likely than Republicans to favor government measures to improve economic mobility. Consider the following:

From the point of view of these numbers, Santorum and the Republican field's version of economic populism will likely be modest and offer few convincing solutions to the problems facing economically distressed voters. For Obama and other Democratic candidates, 2012 may present the best opportunity in recent memory for reconnecting with the white working class

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