Column: Democrats’ hunt for the white working-class male voter

Former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb (right) greets an attendee during a fundraiser for Iowa House Democrats on April 12 in Mason City, Iowa. The former senator is considering a run for president.
Former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb (right) greets an attendee during a fundraiser for Iowa House Democrats on April 12 in Mason City, Iowa. The former senator is considering a run for president.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Democrats were once the party of the white working man — but that was a long time ago.

In the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama won only one-third of the votes of white working-class men, a modern-day low. Mitt Romney, who didn’t seem much like a blue-collar guy, swept the votes of those working stiffs by a huge margin.

In the 2014 congressional election, Democratic candidates did even worse, one of the main reasons they lost nine Senate seats and their Senate majority.

That imbalance has tormented Democratic activists, who still see themselves as champions of the working class, the party’s core identity for most of the last century.


“If Democrats can’t figure out how to appeal to today’s working-class voters, then they don’t deserve to lead,” said Stan Greenberg, a political strategist and pollster who helped Bill Clinton win the presidency in 1992.

So they’ve done polls and held conferences. They’ve launched a grass-roots campaign to connect with blue-collar workers who aren’t union members. White noncollege voters — which is how pollsters define “working class” — have become the Democratic Party’s great white whale.

That may seem like a silly hang-up in view of the conventional wisdom that Democrats have a virtual lock on the next few presidential elections by virtue of demographics.

White men, after all, are a steadily shrinking piece of the electorate. When Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, about one-third of all voters were white noncollege men. By 2012, their share was only about half as large: 17%.

The groups that are growing — women, minorities, young people — tend to vote Democratic. The party’s next nominee could still win the White House based mostly on their turnout; that’s how Obama won his second term.

But abandoning the hunt for white working-class men would make Democratic candidates vulnerable to any Republican candidate who could win a healthy share of minority voters, as George W. Bush did in 2000 and 2004. Equally important, because of the concentration of minority voters in urban districts, it would doom the Democrats to second place in congressional elections.


So it’s a practical problem, not just a sentimental one.

Almost by definition, identity politics is one source of the problem; some white noncollege voters have come to view Democrats as a party that cares about women and minorities more than it cares about them.

“I think this is where Democrats screw up, you know?” former Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who says he may run for president, told Yahoo News recently. “I think that they have kind of unwittingly used this group, white working males, as a whipping post for a lot of their policies. And then when they react, they say they’re being racist.”

The biggest driver of white working-class disaffection, however, is clearly economic insecurity, combined with a sense that big government hasn’t done much to stand up for the little guy.

Poll after poll has shown that workers without college educations are more pessimistic than anyone else about the economic future. That’s only logical, since their job prospects have been worsening for decades.

But there’s a striking racial disconnect: White people are more pessimistic than minorities. When the Pew Research Center asked in 2012 whether they expected their children to enjoy a better standard of living, 56% of black and Latino respondents said yes, but only 41% of whites were optimistic.

How do Democrats plan to get out of the hole they’re in?

Part of the answer is easy: They’ll adopt some version of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s economic populism. They’ll denounce the excesses of Wall Street and demand a better deal for the working class.


That was the very first note Hillary Rodham Clinton sounded last week in Iowa. “The deck is still stacked in favor of those already at the top,” she said. “There’s something wrong when CEOs make 300 times more than the typical worker.... And there’s something wrong when hedge fund managers pay lower tax rates than nurses.”

But Greenberg has proposed adding another piece to the Democrats’ message: a more serious commitment to both campaign reform and a leaner, more efficient federal government — an updated version of Bill Clinton’s 1996 pledge that the era of big government is over.

White working-class voters “are skeptical of government and skeptical of Democrats,” he told me last week. “They’re surprised to hear Democrats say they want to change politics and change government.”

That message, he said, “is a precondition to reaching them on other issues.”

He noted that Hillary Clinton also called last week for outlawing campaign spending by undisclosed donors, “even if that takes a constitutional amendment.”

Democrats don’t expect to win a majority of white working-class voters next year — let alone white working-class men. But they’d like to stop their slide. And, of course, Republicans will compete for the same votes. Several potential GOP candidates have decried the stagnation of blue-collar wages — although, like the Democrats, they haven’t offered much yet in the way of detailed remedies.

At least working-class voters will get plenty of rhetorical attention. That won’t solve their problems — but they won’t be able to complain that nobody’s thinking about them anymore.


Twitter: @doylemcmanus

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