Over the past five years, the Democratic Party has tried to add class warfare to its pre-existing focus on racial and gender grievances, and environmental angst. Shortly after his re-election in 2012, President Obama claimed to have “one mandate . . . to help middle-class families and families that are working hard to try to get into the middle class.”
Yet despite the economic recovery, it is precisely these voters, particularly the white middle and working classes, who, for now, have deserted the Democrats for the GOP, the assumed party of plutocracy. The key in the 2014 mid-term elections was concern about the economy; early exit polls Tuesday night showed that seven in 10 voters viewed the economy negatively, and this did not help the Democratic cause.
“The Democrats have committed political malpractice,” says Morley Winograd, a longtime party activist and a former top aide to Vice President Al Gore during the Clinton years. “They have not discussed the economy and have no real program. They are offering the middle class nothing.”
Winograd believes that the depth of white middle- and working-class angst threatens the bold predictions in recent years about an “emerging Democratic majority” based on women, millennials, minorities and professionals. Non-college educated voters broke heavily for the GOP, according to the exit polling, including some 62% of white non-college voters. This reflects a growing trend: 20 years ago districts with white, working-class majorities tilted slightly Democratic; before the election they favored the GOP by a 5 to 1 margin, and several of the last white, Democratic congressional holdovers from the South, notably West Virginia’s Nick Rahall and Georgia’s John Barrow, went down to defeat Tuesday night.
Perhaps the biggest attrition for the Democrats has been among middle-class voters employed in the private sector, particularly small property and business owners. In the 1980s and 1990s, middle- and working-class people benefited from economic expansions, garnering about half the gains; in the current recovery almost all benefits have gone to the top one percent, particularly the wealthiest sliver of that rarified group.
Rather than the promise of “hope and change,” according to exit polls, 50% of voters said they lack confidence that their children will do better than they have, 10 points higher than in 2010. This is not surprisingly given that nearly 80% state that the recession has not ended, at least for them.
The effectiveness of the Democrats’ class warfare message has been further undermined by the nature of the recovery; while failing most Americans, the Obama era has been very kind to plutocrats of all kinds. Low interest rates have hurt middle-income retirees while helping to send the stock market soaring. Quantitative easing has helped boost the price of assets like high-end real estate; in contrast middle and working class people, as well as small businesses, find access to capital or mortgages still very difficult.
The Republicans made gains in states in New England and the upper Midwest where the vast majority of the population, including the working class, remains far whiter than the national norm of 64% Anglo, such as Massachusetts, where a Republican was elected governor, Michigan, Arkansas and Ohio. Anglos constitute 89% of the population in Iowa and 93% in the former working-class Democratic bastion of West Virginia, two states where the Republicans picked up Senate seats. In Colorado, another big Senate pickup for the GOP, some 80% of the electorate is white. In Kentucky, where Senator Mitch McConnell won a surprisingly easy re-election, only 11% of voters were non-white, down 4% from 2008.
A more intriguing danger sign for Democrats has been the surprisingly strong GOP performance among the educated professionals that embraced Obama early on. This can be seen in gubernatorial victories in deep blue Massachusetts and Maryland, and a close race in Connecticut; in all three states concerns over taxes have shifted some voters to the GOP. Voters making over $100,000 annually broke 56 to 43 for the GOP, according to NBC’s exit polls. College graduates leaned slightly toward the Republicans, but among white college graduates the GOP led by a decisive 55 to 43 margin.
In Colorado, Senator-elect Cory Gardner, like many successful GOP candidates, also did well with middle-income voters (annual salaries between $50,000 and $100,000), who basically accounted for his margin of victory. These are voters that some Republicans are targeting to instigate a new “tax revolt,” like the one that helped catapult Ronald Reagan into the presidency. The potential may be there if the Republicans can wake up from their blind instinct to protect large corporations and big investors. Certainly Obama’s call for higher income taxes on the wealthy has alienated small business owners and professionals, though barely impacting tech oligarchs, whose wealth is taxed at far lower capital gains rates.
It can be argued that changing demographics will make this year’s blowout a temporary setback. Among Latinos, a key constituency for the Democrats’ future, economic hardships and disappointment at the Democrats’ failure to achieve immigration reform have blunted but hardly reversed voting trends. This year, according to exit polls, Latinos remained strongly Democratic, but down from the nearly three-quarters who supported President Obama in 2012 to something slightly less than two-thirds.
One encouraging sign for Republicans: Texas Governor-elect Abbott won 44% of the Hispanic vote.
Perhaps the more serious may be shifts among millennials, a generation that, for the most part, stands most in danger of proleterianization. Once solidly pro-Democratic, this generation has become increasingly alienated as the economy has failed to produce notable gains. In states across the country, the Republican share of millennial votes grew considerably. According to exit polls, their deficit with voters under 30 has shrunk to 13%. The Republicans actually won among white voters under 30, 53% to 44%, even as they lost 30- to 44-year-olds, 58 to 40. If these trends hold, the generation gap that many Democrats saw as their long-term political meal ticket may prove somewhat less compelling.
If they are losing the middle and working classes, and even some millennials, what are the Democrats left with? They did best in states like California and New York, where there is a high concentration of progressive post-graduates and non-whites, and where many of the sectors benefiting most from the recovery have thrived, notably tech, financial services, and high-end real estate.
Yet these areas of strength could also prove a problem for the Democrats. A party increasingly dominated by progressives in New York, Los Angeles, the Bay Area and Seattle may embrace the liberal social and environmental agenda that captivates party’s loyalists but is less appealing to the middle class. Unless the Democrats develop a compelling economic policy that promises better things for the majority, they may find their core constituencies too narrow to prevent the Republicans from enjoying an unexpected, albeit largely undeserved, resurgence.
This piece originally appeared at Forbes.
Cross-posted at New Geography.