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Blue-Collar Deja Vu

Democrats' struggles among working-class whites are reminiscent of 1994.

Economically speaking, the George W. Bush years were miserable for working-class white Americans.

Even during the economic expansion that ran through the heart of his presidency, whites with less than a college education lost ground: In constant dollars, the median income for families headed by white men with only a high school diploma fell from 2000 through 2007 after rising modestly during the 1990s, mostly under Bill Clinton. When Bush left the White House, the poverty rate for white Americans without college degrees was higher than when he arrived.


And yet, in 2008, while other segments of the electorate stampeded toward Barack Obama, working-class whites resisted: He carried just 40 percent of them. Democratic candidates this fall may struggle to match even that.

Democrats in 1994, in effect, were hit in the head with a 2-by-4.

If they can't change current dynamics, Democrats are facing midterm threats from almost every direction. In opinion polls, college-educated white men, always a tough group for the party, are hardening in opposition; college-educated white women, Democrats' best constituency among whites, are softening in support. Minorities and young people still like Obama, but they might vote in much smaller numbers than they did in 2008. Conversely, energized conservatives appear likely to storm the voting booths.


Yet of all the electoral dangers confronting Democrats in 2010, the most acute may be their full-scale collapse among blue-collar whites. Sharp movements toward the GOP among those voters were central to the Republican victories in the three marquee elections since 2008. In the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races last November, the Democratic nominee carried fewer than three in 10 votes cast by whites without a college education. (In both states, the Democrats ran more strongly among college-educated white voters, though still well behind Obama's 2008 performance.)

Likewise in Republican Scott Brown's stunning Senate victory in Massachusetts, post-election surveys from The Washington Post and Democratic pollster Peter Hart each found that Democrat Martha Coakley narrowly won well-educated whites and led among minorities. But Brown motored past her by capturing more than three-fifths of blue-collar white voters.

For Democrats, these results should trigger an ominous sense of deja vu. The 1994 landslide that swept Republicans to their House and Senate majorities was powered almost entirely by another revolt among whites who work with their hands: Democrats, in effect, were hit in the head with a 2-by-4. Exit polls showed that from 1992, when House Democrats won a comfortable majority, to 1994, when Republicans captured the chamber, the GOP's share of the total House vote actually declined slightly among minorities and remained almost unchanged among college whites. But Republicans surged from winning 47 percent of noncollege whites in 1992 to grabbing 61 percent in 1994. That was the majority-maker.

Working-class whites make up a smaller share of the electorate now than they did then, but they are still a big enough bloc to sting. After the Republican wins in New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts, few congressional Democrats who must win substantial numbers of blue-collar whites to survive can feel entirely safe. "That's where their tsunami is going to be," says ex-Rep. Tom Davis, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.


Much of the Democrats' distress among blue-collar whites results from long-term changes that have re-sorted the electorate more along the lines of cultural values than of economic interests. These working-class voters, mostly conservative on cultural and foreign-policy issues, have moved toward the GOP even as better-educated whites with the opposite views have trended Democratic. But the disaffection from Democrats among blue-collar whites is especially severe now. That is probably because their financial pain has intensified. (The unemployment rate among this group, at 10.4 percent, is well over twice the level for college-educated whites.) Polls suggest that these voters have focused their discontent more at government than at business.

Can Obama reverse that equation? The middle-class agenda of pension, child care, and college aid that he recently announced could tangibly assist these families. Some Democrats believe that with construction jobs lagging, an emphasis on infrastructure, such as the innovative $4 billion fund for public-private partnerships that Obama announced in his budget, might help even more.

Democrats may also try to highlight Republican ideas -- such as converting Medicare into a voucher for younger workers -- that could alienate these voters. And nothing would boost Democrats more than declining unemployment. Democrats no longer need to carry most blue-collar white voters to win elections, and they are not the party's future. But if Democrats entirely fall through the floor with these families, their House majority could crumble too.

This article appears in the February 6, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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