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Democrats Have a White Working Class Problem—and Not Just in the South

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Whenever elections approach, there is always a flurry of concern among Democrats regarding the white working class. Despite a steady and gradual decline in its size over the last several decades, this group remains a substantial percentage of the electorate; even relatively small decreases in its support for Democrats can mean defeat to Republican opponents. On a national level, if white working class support falls even 1 or 2 percent below the 36 percent that Obama received from them in 2012, the party's 2016 nominee will be in serious trouble.

In this year’s election cycle, the discussion about white working Americans began in March with a New York Times op-ed, “How Democrats Can Compete for the White Working Class,” by Tom Edsall. Noting Obama's 4 percent drop in support from the group between 2008 and 2012, he nonetheless insisted that "Democratic prospects do not seem so gloomy. There was a wide disparity in Obama’s performance among with working class voters in different sections of the country: awful in the South and significantly better in much of the rest of the country. This suggests that a targeted regional strategy could strengthen the Democratic Party’s chances with what was once its core constituency."

A number of commentators endorsed this interpretation of the 2012 election results, that Democrats could obtain sufficient white working class support to win future elections by essentially writing off the South and putting all their efforts into maximizing their support among white working people in other areas of the country. Mother Jones's Kevin Drum, for example, argued that “Democrats in general and Obama in particular don’t really have a huge 'white working class' problem. What they have is a huge Southern problem.… It’s only in the South that the white working class vote is overwhelmingly Republican, and this is what skews the national results.”

At first glance the data seem to support this view. Although the standard exit polls in 2012 did not include the same detailed regional and educational data as they had in prior years,a special analysis that I conducted on data from a large, 3,400-respondent post-election survey conducted by Democracy Corps shows that Obama’s support among whites with less than a four-year college degree in 2012 was as follows:

For many Democratic strategists, this is a very appealing pattern because it suggests that white working class hostility toward the party is rooted in a unique cultural conservatism that exists mainly in the South, and that elsewhere the attitudes of white working people are really not all that different from working-class attitudes in the past. Thus, obtaining adequate support from the white working class in the country as a whole simply requires adding a generous dollop of populist rhetoric and policies to an otherwise unchanged Democratic platform.

But this analysis is simplistic, if not outright wrong. The reality is more complex.

For one thing, the geographical breakdown of the U.S. into the four regions—Northeast, Central, South, and West—is not a very accurate framework for interpreting the country's politics. After all, the West includes both Democratic California and Republican states like Utah, Idaho, and Arizona, and the Central region includes both industrial Michigan and rural Kansas and Iowa. To more precisely confirm the unique political character of the South one needs to examine a set of regions that more closely mirrors the basic, underlying sociological and political divisions in the nation. When political analysts discuss the geographical divisions in America they generally distinguish between, on the one hand, the more pro-Democratic coastal regions and “rust belt” or former industrial heartland, and on the other hand the more pro-Republican Red States not only in the South but also the Southwest, rural Midwest, and far West/Mountain West.  

The National Committee for an Effective Congress has developed a set of regional categories that more closely tracks these major political divisions. The same Democracy Corps data, re-sorted into these categories, shows the following:

One can immediately see that the notion that “the whole problem is the South” simply doesn’t fit the facts. White working class support for Obama in 2012 was at or below an abysmal 30-31 percent not just the South but in large areas of the country that include the “rural heartland” of the Midwest and far West, the Mountain West, and the Southwest.

This should not be a surprise. The data above is entirely consistent with the basic American political reality of a deep Red State/Blue State divide. Every political campaign manager knows that in the practical world of political campaigns, white working class people in places like Wichita, Yuma, or Sioux City are not strikingly more “pro-Democratic” than white working class people in Baton Rouge, Augusta, or Memphis.

If the notion that “the problem is just the South” fails to properly account for the real regional political divisions in America, however, it also fails to recognize the critical importance of another aspect of the political divisions within the white working class: the substantial difference between the more urban and less urban members of the group, regardless of the region of the country.

The traditional post-war image of the white working class is of workers concentrated in large Northern industrial cities like Detroit, Akron, Buffalo, and Pittsburg. But Beginning in the 1970s, many industries moved from the major cities to smaller towns to avoid unions and seek a more friendly “business climate,” while at the same time many white workers (like those in construction) who still worked in urban areas moved to the urban fringe for lower cost housing and to escape urban, metropolitan culture for a more “country” way of life. Today, two-thirds of white workers live in small towns, the urban fringes around metropolitan areas, or rural areas; only a third remain in central cities or suburbs.

Now look at how white working class support for Obama declines as one moves from large metro areas to less urban settings.

This also shouldn't be a surprise: The GOP's base lives in small towns, the urban fringe, and rural areas. But it has tremendous implications for Democratic strategy. The party could "write off" white working class in the South and still win many elections, but it's impossible to write off working Americans in all of the Red States or in all non-urban areas and still have a stable and enduring Democratic majority. Instead, such a majority will require increasing white working class support for Democrats in these areas.

It won't be easy. The 2012 election showed that a populist appeal is necessary to draw white working class voters, but it's not sufficient to reach the majority who now live outside urban centers or the formerly industrial areas of the Rust Belt. In many Red States, Democrats' populist rhetoric simply doesn't penetrate the local political culture, which is dominated by Fox News and conservative radio. In these areas, Democrats have no alternative except to try to rebuild local political organizations and regain the support that has atrophied for several decades.

Many Democrats would prefer not to have to face this monumental organization challenge, hoping instead that the existing Obama coalition and demographic changes in America will prove sufficient to elect a president in 2016, hold the Senate, and weaken GOP control over the House of Representatives. But the harsh reality for Democrats is that they cannot achieve all three of these objectives without increasing their support among white working class Americans—and if Democrats keep telling themselves that "the problem is just the South," that support may decrease instead.