Dean’s Success May Hinge on Luring Blue-Collar Votes
Can Howard Dean escape the Starbucks ghetto?
New polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, the critical first two states in the Democratic presidential race, show the former Vermont governor dominating among voters with a college degree -- the sort of people more likely to stop at Starbucks than a doughnut shop in the morning. But in both states he is showing much less strength among voters who did not graduate from college.
That sharp educational divide has been a driving force in every recent Democratic race involving candidates, like Dean, who positioned themselves as Washington outsiders and reformers. In those contests, the inability to sufficiently connect with blue-collar and less-educated voters ultimately helped doom contenders like Gary Hart in 1984, Paul Tsongas in 1992 and Bill Bradley in 2000, all of whom generated enthusiasm among better-educated voters.
Many of Dean’s rivals believe that he faces the same risk if he cannot build more support among blue-collar voters, especially after the race contracts to a two- or three-person contest after the initial primaries.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to be able to span the party to win,” said David Axelrod, a top advisor to Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. “Certainly there is a working-class base to our party, and the ability to relate to those voters is very, very important.”
Other analysts, however, believe that because the Democrats over the last decade have grown increasingly dependent on support from more-affluent and better-educated voters, Dean may be able to win the nomination primarily with their backing -- especially if voters without college degrees don’t unify around one of his rivals.
But almost all Democrats, including senior advisors in Dean’s camp, agree that he will face long odds as a nominee against President Bush if he cannot make greater inroads among blue-collar and noncollege voters, especially men.
“Does this mean he can’t win the nomination? The answer is: He can win the nomination,” said Tony Coelho, a campaign chairman for Al Gore in 2000. “Does this mean real problems for the general election? The answer is also yes.”
Added a top Dean aide: “We are going to have to develop and broaden the message. I don’t doubt that for a second.”
The educational divide in Democratic presidential primaries -- what Axelrod calls “the wine track” and “the beer track” -- reflects the divided nature of the modern Democratic Party.
From Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election in 1932 through the 1960s, the heart of the Democratic coalition was blue-collar and minority voters. Blue-collar whites often were conservative on social issues but were mainly drawn to the party to represent their economic interests.
But since the days of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, many of these lunch-bucket Democrats have migrated toward the Republicans around such issues as taxes, crime and national security. That has reduced their overall influence in the Democratic Party.
In their place, Democrats have gained support since the 1970s from college-educated professionals -- “lifestyle liberals” who back the party’s positions on social concerns, such as abortion, gun control, the environment and foreign policy.
Over the last 20 years, the tension between the lunch-bucket and the lifestyle Democrats often has shaped the race for the party’s presidential nomination. That contrast is emerging this year too.
In polls released last week by the Democracy Corps, a party advocacy group, Dean held a commanding lead among college-educated Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to vote in January.
In Iowa, Dean led Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri among college-educated voters 36% to 15%, according to the survey, conducted by veteran Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg. Among college-educated voters in New Hampshire, Dean crushed Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts 45% to 19%, the survey found.
Among voters without a college degree, the story was very different. In Iowa, among voters with a high school degree or less, Gephardt led Dean by 42% to 16%; in New Hampshire, those voters preferred Kerry over Dean 29% to 23%. Voters with some college, but not a degree, narrowly preferred Gephardt in Iowa and Dean in New Hampshire.
Together, those results produced a virtual dead heat in Iowa -- with Gephardt at 27% and Dean at 26% -- and a comfortable 38% to 21% Dean lead over Kerry in New Hampshire.
Dean’s strength among better-educated voters fits a long-standing tradition. Since the 1960s, these Democrats have favored candidates who position themselves as reform-minded outsiders, scorn politics as usual and embrace liberal positions on social issues and foreign policy. That lineage runs from Eugene McCarthy’s anti-Vietnam War crusade against Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 to George S. McGovern in 1972, and to Hart, Tsongas and Bradley.
These outsider candidates have always done well in New Hampshire, which has an unusually heavy concentration of college-educated voters. In Greenberg’s poll, 60% of likely Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire held a college or post-graduate degree.
Such candidates have found fertile territory elsewhere in New England, in the upper Midwest and along the West Coast, where the share of college graduates in the population is also higher than the national average. That could lead to strong February showings for Dean in early-voting states such as Virginia, Washington, California, Connecticut, Maryland, New York and Minnesota.
But Dean’s predecessors have struggled in the South and the Midwest, where college-educated voters are outnumbered by those without degrees. South Carolina, for instance, which is emerging as the marquee contest on Feb. 3, is the mirror image of New Hampshire: Just 39% of likely Democratic primary voters there have four-year degrees, Greenberg found. In Iowa, the number is 44%.
Several factors may help Dean improve on his predecessors’ performance with noncollege voters. While Hart, Bradley and Tsongas were staunch free-traders, Dean is stressing a tough-on-trade message in which he promises to demand changes in the North American Free Trade Agreement. That stance could turn heads in blue-collar communities.
Dean’s lead in the fund-raising race also will provide him with opportunities to target advertising and organizing efforts at less-educated voters.
Dean could benefit too if none of his rivals emerges quickly enough as the clear favorite among less-educated voters, as Walter F. Mondale did in 1984 or Bill Clinton did in 1992. Many believe Gephardt, with his populist economic message, skepticism on free trade and close ties to industrial unions, may be best-suited for that role. But he has been hindered by doubts, especially among key labor leaders, about his electability, and could face money shortages after the first contests.
Kerry’s Vietnam experience could open the door with these Democrats, but his personal style isn’t an easy fit. Edwards, who stresses his own blue-collar roots, and Wesley K. Clark, who can tout both a modest background and military experience, have potential assets with this group too. But apart from Gephardt in Iowa, no one has established as strong a base among noncollege Democrats as Dean has with the cap-and-gown set.
“What it is going to take to stop Dean is you need a candidate to combine the noncollege with some reasonable fraction of the college-educated voters,” said Ruy Teixeira, an expert on the Democratic coalition at the Century Foundation, a liberal research organization based in New York. “You have to perform somewhat well there [among the college voters] and then kill him with that [noncollege] class of voters. The question is: Who is that guy?”
One senior Dean advisor says the campaign believes it’s possible that no one will fill that position until Dean has already shown such strength that his momentum will stampede even noncollege voters toward him in the later states.
Yet this advisor acknowledges that the initial resistance to Dean among noncollege voters may be a warning sign for a general election. In Greenberg’s polls, Dean displayed particular weakness in Iowa and New Hampshire among men without college degrees, a group trending away from Democrats for the last two decades.