Obama lamented about this in comments at a private fundraiser in San Francisco on Apr. 6:
"It's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
He refers not to Sen. Clinton's undeniable success with white working class voters, but instead the tendency for this cohort to vote Republican on the basis of social issues. Obama adopts the thesis of Thomas Frank's 2004 book What's the Matter with Kansas?, believing that the economic interests of white working class voters lie with the Democratic Party. On this count, both are wrong.
Alan Abramowitz and Ruy Teixeira recently published a paper for the Brookings Institute titled "The Decline of the White Working Class and the Rise of the Upper Middle Class." In it, they attempt to define what constitutes membership in the white working class, using educational, income, and occupational classifications, finding them all imperfect. As indicated in the title, this demographic group is shrinking. For instance, in 1940 3/4 of adults older than 25 were high school drop-outs and a mere 5 percent held a college degree. By 2007, only 14 percent were dropouts and 29 percent completed college, with a full 54 percent having at least some post-high school education. Similarly, the percentage of white collar jobs has increased from 32 percent in 1940 to 60 percent in 2006. Those doing manual labor declined from 36 to 23 percent during the same period. Finally, the median family income in 1947 in 2005 dollars was $22,000. This rose to $56,000 by 2005, with ample evidence of upward mobility.
These trends considered, the authors suggest that the white working class is defined as those with less than a four-year college degree (narrower definition: high school or less), who do not hold a professional or managerial job (narrow: manual or service jobs), and household incomes below $60,000 (narrow: $30K). By this definition, the United States was "overwhelmingly" white working class in 1940, but increases in education, income, even the nature of working class jobs (only 1/6 hold manufacturing jobs nowadays) have all served to erode its dominance.
Back to politics. Whereas white working class voters were once a staple of FDR's New Deal Coalition, they began to abandon the Democratic Party in droves beginning in the late 1960's as their economic predicaments changed, along with the party's response to the civil rights movement and the political policies and programs employed to address the needs of its minority constituents. The authors write: "The Democratic Party fell victim to the ideological impetus of a liberalism which had carried it beyond programs taxing the few for the many...to programs taxing the many on behalf of the few."
This all came to a climax with the colossal defeat of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972. Over the course of the preceding decade, working class whites shifted away from the Democratic Party by a margin on 20 percent, from 55 to 35 percent. Ronald Reagan would further cement the GOP's relationship with working class whites throughout the 1980's, averaging 61 percent support among this demographic to his opponents' 35 percent. Bill Clinton averaged only a 41 percent success rate in his two plurality victories in the 1990's, and Al Gore and John Kerry lost this group to George W. Bush by margins of 17 and 23 percent respectively.
The numbers in the 2004 election are particularly illuminating. For those in the $30,000-$50,000 household income demographic, Bush beat Kerry by a margin on 24 points. For those in the same category, but with a college degree, the candidates split the vote evenly, 49-49 percent. Working class whites earning between $50,000-$70,000 went to Bush by a startling 70-29 percent margin, but the gap shrinks to 5 percent for those who completed college.
Moreover, contrary to Frank's claim, the culturally conservative voters attracted to the GOP come from the higher income thresholds, not the white working class. Larry Bartels makes this point in an Apr. 17 op-ed piece in the New York Times, though Abramowitz and Teixeira take issue with his definition of white working class voters. Bartels finds that small-town, rural, working class voters are less likely to distrust government than their affluent urbanite peers, but also less likely to vote on the basis of their position on abortion or the frequency by which they attend church than the cosmopolitans who populate our metropoles.
What does this all mean in the context of the 2008 election? In order for the Democratic candidate, whoever it may be, to prevail this fall, he or she must narrow the margin by which they lose the white working class vote. Should McCain attain the 23 percent margin of his predecessor, he will cruise down Pennsylvania Ave. for a third straight GOP term. If, however, the Democratic candidate closes the margin to a more respectable 10 percent as the party did in the 2006 midterm elections, America will likely have its first African-American or woman president.