White working class: Clinging to guns, religion and Romney


Apparently, Barack Obama was right. White working-class voters really do cling to guns and religion.

That may be no surprise, but a new survey of the white working class (definition: non-Latino white voters who lack a college degree and have jobs that pay by the hour) does contain some findings that cut against the grain, and others that offer new insight into a key American voting bloc.

The survey, published Thursday by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, will probably not be recreational reading at the White House, given its portrait of a segment of the population with no great love for President Obama. Even the name of the report -- “Beyond Guns and God: Understanding the Complexities of the White Working Class in America” -- is an implicit poke at the president, recalling his infamous off-the-record comments in 2008 about “bitter” people who cling to those pole stars.


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But it offers both presidential campaigns food for thought as they seek to reach a vital part of the American populace that has been especially hard hit by the recession and, even before that, by the loss of manufacturing jobs that once offered modestly educated workers a path into the middle class. And both candidates can find snippets of good news -- and bad.

Some highlights from the survey (which was conducted in early to mid-August, before either national party convention):

  • Neither Obama nor Mitt Romney is well loved by this group, with both scoring favorability ratings in the mid-40s. But in a head-to-head matchup, Romney was the clear choice, with a lead of 48% to 35%. By contrast, white college-educated voters were split almost evenly.

  • It’s an oversimplification to say (as Democrats are fond of doing) that white working-class Americans tend to vote against their own economic interests. For instance, the survey found that white working-class Americans who have received food stamps within the last two years were significantly less likely to support Romney, whose economic policies would be more likely to reduce funding for entitlement programs. In general, the survey found that the poorer people were, the more likely they were to support Obama. Still, even among white working-class households that made less than $30,000 a year, Romney held a slight lead.

  • It’s also wrong to assume that this segment of the population is highly motivated by “culture war” issues. The survey found white working-class voters closely divided on abortion (with a slight edge to legal-abortion advocates) and mostly opposed to same-sex marriage (although that changed dramatically according to age, with younger voters tending to support gay marriage). But practically nobody said those issues were paramount in this election. The most important issue, it almost goes without saying, was the economy.

  • The Democrats would do well to clone Bill Clinton. The former president is viewed favorably by 61% of the white working class. His successor, George W. Bush, is viewed favorably by 51%.

  • The South is different. Voters there were dramatically more likely to support Romney, and far more likely to own firearms and oppose same-sex marriage than their counterparts in other regions. Obama (whose greatest strength is among black and Latino voters) was actually leading among white working-class voters in the Midwest, where workers are more unionized and where his auto industry bailout is undoubtedly paying dividends.

  • About guns and God: Yes, lots of white working-class voters (51%) own guns. Then again, so do a lot of college-educated whites. The main difference: Working-class voters are far more likely to support the National Rifle Assn. And the working class believes in God, or at least in religious affiliation. More than 1 in 3 describe themselves as evangelical Protestants, with nearly 40% divided between Catholics and main-line Protestants. White working-class Americans are more than twice as likely as college-educated whites to believe that the Bible is the literal word of God. Yet college-educated whites are slightly more likely to attend religious services regularly.

  • Finally, it’s a Wal-Mart world. A solid majority of white working-class voters said they preferred Wal-Mart to Target. Among the college educated, the results were the opposite. The white working class is also twice as likely to prefer Dunkin Donuts to Starbucks. College-educated whites also prefer Dunkin Donuts, but by a much slimmer margin. Then again, the word “slimmer” probably doesn’t belong anywhere in that sentence.

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