“Culturally conservative [voters] are looking for a classic tea party candidate who is not intimidated by the establishment.” —Ralph Reed, former Christian Coalition executive director
This long-term, but now accelerating, class inversion has reshaped the demographic basis of each party’s coalition—and its electorate in the primaries. The change transformed the Democratic Party first.
In the era of mass presidential primaries (which began in 1968), the Democratic nominating contest has frequently come down to a race between a “beer track” candidate who relies primarily on economically populist working-class voters (including minorities) and a “wine track” rival who relies mostly on more culturally liberal college-educated white voters. For decades, in every race in which that pattern emerged, the beer-track candidate beat the wine-track contender (think Walter Mondale besting Gary Hart in 1984 and Al Gore defeating Bill Bradley in 2000).
In 2008, Barack Obama, who ran much better among college-educated than working class whites, became the first wine-track candidate in the primary era to win the nomination. That was partly because he shifted most African-American voters to his camp. However, it was also because college-educated white voters (who gave as many of their votes to Obama as to Clinton) had grown as a share of the primary vote to the point where they equaled the blue-collar whites who overwhelmingly preferred Clinton, according to a cumulative analysis of all 2008 Democratic primary exit polls conducted by ABC News.
As the Democratic primaries have shifted upscale, blue-collar voters have become an increasingly important factor within the Republican primary electorate. In the 2008 GOP primaries, according to ABC’s cumulative exit-poll analysis, voters without a four-year college degree made up a 51 percent majority of the total vote, compared with 49 percent for those with a college degree. In some coastal states, where overall education levels tend to be higher, college-educated Republicans still cast most of the 2008 primary votes. But in many Midwestern and Southern states, noncollege voters dominated in the primaries. (See chart.)
Rob Stutzman, a California-based Republican consultant who advised Romney last time, said that the shifting demographics became concrete for him when Huckabee upset Romney in the 2008 Iowa caucuses with a message that combined cultural conservatism with populist economics and free-trade skepticism. The mix was reminiscent of the agenda that Pat Buchanan offered in his 1992 and 1996 Republican primary bids, although Huckabee delivered it with a more cheerful disposition.
“When Huckabee was able to undercut Romney not just by appealing to Christian [values], but appealing to Christian blue-collar Republican voters with populist economics and protectionism … that was to me an ‘aha’ moment,” Stutzman said. “You had voters buying into an economics that hasn’t had a home in the Republican Party since Buchanan.”
Given the GOP’s overwhelming general-election performances among working-class whites in 2008 and 2010, many party strategists expect those supporters to contribute an even larger share of the GOP vote in the 2012 presidential primaries. “Once people cross the bridge and become active [with a party] in the general election, they become more active in the primaries,” Weaver said. “My sense is that will happen—and it will change the dynamic of the primary.”
A NEW CLASS DIVIDE
In contrast to the Democratic presidential primaries, class and education traditionally have not created major fissures in Republican nomination contests. ABC’s cumulative analysis found that in 2008, for instance, John McCain won exactly the same share of the vote among college and noncollege Republicans. Historically, the more important Republican primary dynamic has been ideological, with center-right and hard-right voters diverging.
Early evidence suggests, however, that the wine-track, beer-track dynamic could affect the GOP in 2012 and overlay the familiar ideological contrast with factors of economic class, cultural style, and tone. In early national polling, Palin and Romney, in particular, display mirror-image patterns of support much like the contrast between Clinton and Obama in 2008.
In the most recent national Quinnipiac test of GOP voter preferences for 2012, Palin led Romney 22 percent to 14 percent among Republican-leaning voters who don’t have a college degree. But college-educated Republicans preferred Romney over Palin, 26 percent to 10 percent. Gallup’s most recent national horse-race test produced similar results. Among white noncollege Republicans, Romney and Palin ran about even; but among college-educated white Republicans, he led her 27 percent to 10 percent. In both the Quinnipiac and Gallup surveys, Huckabee and Gingrich, the other two candidates who polled best, showed equal strength among both groups (although in his 2008 race, Huckabee drew somewhat more backing from noncollege than college-educated voters).
Ideology only partially explains the GOP’s new class divide. To help quantify the differences between blue-collar and white-collar Republicans, National Journal and the Pew Research Center recently analyzed results from their joint Society for Human Resource Management/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll over the past year, as well as from other Pew surveys.