Progressive Democrats, nudged over the past eight years by progressive social scientists like Ruy Teixeira and Larry Bartels, are frustrated that white working-class voters don’t support Democratic presidential candidates. Special attention was paid to this part of the white vote this year by politicians and political organizers as well as by the media. The economy was the top issue, where Democrats are thought to have an advantage, and the sweeping unpopularity of George W. Bush made 2008 a Democratic year par excellence. On the other hand, the Democrats nominated an African-American for President, and many college-educated Democrats fear white racism is worse among the working class than among the white middle class.
How did the white working-class vote this time around? And what does it mean?
The exit polls at CNN Election Center provide lots of facts and figures that can inform discussion about these questions, but no definitive answers. First, there are two competing definitions of the “working class” – one based on education and one based on household income. By both definitions, the white working class again gave the Republican candidate, John McCain this time, a majority of their vote at the national level. But state-level exit polls provide a more complicated picture of working-class whites who are diverse by region as well as in other ways.
Using the income definition, all white voters with annual household incomes of less than $50,000 are said to be “the white working class.” This white working class was 25% of all voters in 2008, and only 47% of them voted for Barack Obama. Looking at these same voters state-by-state, however, shows a wide variation – from 68% for Obama in Massachusetts to 11% for Obama in Alabama. I didn’t look at all the states, but of those I did, Obama won the white working-class in 8 of the 12 battleground states outside the South. In Ohio, for example, one of three voters were white working class (by this definition), and they voted 51% for Obama. States where working-class whites gave Obama 60% or more of their votes include Illinois, New York, Washington, and Wisconsin.
The education definition defines all white voters who do not have at least a bachelor’s degree as “white working class.” This is a larger group, 39% of all voters in 2008, and only 40% of them voted for Obama across the nation. In five of the battleground states, however, this white working class voted for Obama over McCain – Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin. Obama also won majorities among working-class whites in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Washington. Conversely, Obama got only 9% of white working-class votes in Alabama and 11% in Mississippi. In Ohio exactly one-half of the electorate was working class and white, and that half gave our president-elect only 44% of their votes.
What all this might mean requires much more discussion. But even with this cursory look, two things should be clear: First, there is not one white working class, but many, and it is well to remember that national numbers of any sort are aggregates of much more diverse and complex realities in many different places. Second, race is still a predominant factor in dividing the American working class. For the exit polls, the “nonwhite working class” consists of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and “Others” as self-defined by those polled. There are, of course, substantial differences within these “nonwhite” groups, but they voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008 – 83% using the education definition and 86% using the income definition.
Most whites who voted for John McCain are probably not racist, or even substantially motivated by racial prejudice. But I think it is fair to say that the nonwhite working class is substantially better at perceiving and acting on their class interests than the white working class is in many parts of our very large, diverse, and complicated nation.