No Tea Party Here: Obama, Democrats, and the Working Class

The Center for Working-Class Studies released the results of its latest survey last week.  As I look at the results, two things jump out: first, the President is paying a price for doing the right things the wrong way, and second, the conservative pundits like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hanitty, who continually characterize the Tea Party movement as a revolt fueled by a working class fed up with Obama and the liberal elite, haven’t quite been telling the truth.

Neither finding is really surprising.  Both may have a profound effect on the nation for decades to come.

To understand why, let’s begin with Mr. Obama.  For more than a year liberals have expressed frustration and disappointment with his inability or unwillingness to take advantage of the political capital he accumulated while capturing the White House.  His refusal to fully engage in the health care debate until the 11th hour, the decision to focus the economic stimulus package on Wall Street rather than Main Street, his apparent abandonment of the Employee Freedom of Choice Act, and a number of other perceived failures have undermined his support among the Democratic Party’s base, including those who participated in the CWCS survey.

Since the first survey was conducted in May of 2009 the president’s approval rating has fallen from 87% to 68% among all respondents and from 87% to 59% among those who identify themselves as belonging to the working class.  Although his overall approval rating remains high, Obama and Democratic leaders should be worried about another number: the precipitous drop in the percentage of those who strongly approve of his performance.  Among all respondents it fell from 52% to 15%, while among the working class it fell from 48% to 11% — a 37 point drop for both groups.

Just as troubling is the fact that the percentage who strongly disapprove of his work to this point is now equal to the number who strongly approve.  For those who identify as working class, the numbers are only slightly more split: 15% strongly disapprove and 11% strongly approve.

The reasons for this considerable softening in Obama’s approval ratings are easily discerned from the responses to other survey questions.  While more than 80% of respondents have consistently rated the U.S. economy as bad or very bad, until this survey they also said by large margins that the country was moving in the right direction.  Their optimism in the face of the crumbling economy was based in large part on their belief that the President could and would turn the nation around.

That belief has clearly eroded over the past year.  Today, the percentage who see the nation moving forward has dropped more than 40%; more respondents now say that things are moving the wrong direction. The sense of unease is greatest among the working class, who now say things are going in the wrong direction by a two-to-one margin: 48% to 24%.

Why has the base’s faith been shaken?  More than 55% of working-class respondents say Obama has done less than they expected since taking office.  Three-quarters of them believe the stimulus package has been only somewhat or not at all effective, 78% say Wall Street and big business have too much influence over the White House, and only slightly more than 52% believe he cares more about working families than big business.

All of this bodes ill for Democrats because softening support and fading enthusiasm will undoubtedly equate to lower turnout among the base in an election in which the party cannot afford to leave one vote on the table.

Interestingly, though, the working class’s disenchantment with the first year of the Obama presidency has not, as some conservative commentators and pundits would have us believe, driven them toward the “Tea Party” movement.  Although Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, Anne Coulter, and others on the right continually state that Tea Partiers are “real,” or “average,” or “everyday,” or “working” Americans who are fed up with Obama and the federal government, the results of the CWCS reveal a completely different reality.

For example, 72% of working-class respondents hold an unfavorable or very unfavorable view of the movement that conservative commentators would have us believe they enthusiastically support.  Eighty-one percent disagree or strongly disagree with the movement’s stand on political and moral issues, and only nine percent characterized themselves as Tea Party supporters.

And lest those on the right attempt to counter these results by saying the respondents to the survey don’t know or understand what the movement is all about, 93% said they had read about and are familiar with what the Tea Party stands for.  The fact is that working-class Americans know what the movement stands for and they resoundingly reject it.

The accuracy of the CWCS results is underscored by data derived from a recent survey of Tea Party supporters conducted by The New York Times and CNN, which shows that movement supporters are married white males who are wealthier and better educated than members of the working class.

This is not to say that the groups don’t share some positions or a discontent with where the country is heading.  Members of both groups believe the economy and jobs are the most critical issues the U.S. faces, that the economy is bad, and that the nation is on the wrong track.

Stark differences arise, however, when the groups are asked to identify the causes of the problems and their most likely solutions.  While a vast majority of Tea Partiers believe the country is moving in the wrong direction, they, unlike members of the working class, believe the economy is getting better.  Their discomfort with America’s future is based on their distrust of Washington.  Ninety-six percent say the federal government rarely does the right thing, 75% say Obama does not share their values, 56% say the administration’s policies favor the poor, and 73% would favor cuts to Medicare and Social Security in order to reduce the size of government.

Most significantly, 76% of Tea Party supporters believe the government should reduce the deficit rather than spend money to create jobs.  More than 77% of the working class believes just the opposite—they want the government to fuel the economy regardless of the effect on the deficit.

With these findings in mind, Mr. Obama and the Democrats need not fear that substantial portions of the party’s base will join the Tea Party.  The ideological gulf between the two groups is far too wide.  What they should fear, as the latest survey clearly shows, is that,  in the immortal words of Pogo, the Dems have met the enemy and “He is us.”  Doing whatever is necessary to improve the economy between now and November in order to reenergize the party’s base should be the primary concern of the administration and Congressional Democrats.  Failure to accomplish that mission rather than opposition from an inconsequential movement like the Tea Partiers, will spell doom for the Democrats.

Leo Jennings

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5 Responses to No Tea Party Here: Obama, Democrats, and the Working Class

  1. Lily Carr says:

    I’m still wondering why the survey didn’t allow for a non-homeowner response–or at least the option to not respond to the mortgage payments question. ????


  2. Leo Jennings says:

    Thank you for your comment, Mr. Crist. I have worked with both quantitative and qualitative survey research for more than a quarter century and am familiar with the differences between the two.

    The on-line surveys are examples of qualitative research and are designed, much like focus groups, to generate individuals’ subjective take on events and issues. That is why we are careful to always speak in terms of how the respondents to the survey replied to the questions. We do not and would not attempt to extrapolate from this data how the entire “working class” or other group regards an issue.

    That being said, the surveys provide valuable insight into the opinions and feelings of those who choose to particiapte. I would point out that the falling ratings for President Obama reflected in our last survey are consistent with the ratings produced via quantitative research and that our findings regarding the make-up of and support for the Tea Party movement correlate with those of the latest NYT/CNN poll on the matter.

    Most importantly, we attempted, and I believe we succeeded in gaining some important insights into why the respondents’ enthusiasm for the President has waned as well as some sense of what he and Congressional Democrats must do to re-energize the base.

    We could have conducted 30 focus groups of ten participants and gathered the same data, the on-line survey process enables us to do basically the same thing much more easily.


  3. Leo Jennings is spot on in his piece. I have anecdotally found the same results in my interviews with many dozens of working class people over the past year for my upcoming book, “Someplace Like America.” This is a 30-year reported retrospective on workers in America. Real working class people are angry. But most of them are not joining the Tea Party movement. In fact, a number of ordinary working class people I have interviewed who are not at all political left or right are appalled by it.

    –Dale Maharidge


  4. As I understand it, the Working Class Studies surveys are not scientific surveys. They are self-selected. The Center tells people about it through its e-mail list, Web site, blog and at its events, and people who are interested answer the questions. Any social scientist worth his or her salt would not draw any conclusions based on the opinions of people who voluntarily seek completing surveys.

    The survey is not measuring the working class, it’s measuring people who are aware and engaged enough with YSU’s Center for Working Class Studies to know they are conducting a survey.

    These results could hardly be considered representative of all working class people, even all working class people in the Mahoning Valley.

    Often times, the commentary on this blog is worthwhile, but these “surveys” survey very little actual data. They are propaganda more than science.

    I know that completing a “real” scientific survey is time consuming, requires significant man power and is costly. Such surveys may well be beyond the resources of the Center. But for a center tied to a university that professes to “study” something, I would expect a little more academic rigor, and at the very least, having each article and post about these surveys include the caveat that they are not scientific surveys and as such, should be taken with a grain of salt.

    There are courses at YSU that teach proper public opinion survey methods and how to analyze that data. I took one last semester from Dr. Porter in the Political Science department. Maybe some of the writers of this blog should look into enrolling.

    There is clearly a progressive political agenda that is coupled with the Center for Working Class Studies. I largely agree with this agenda. But people would take your political points more seriously if they were coupled with generally accepted polling practices.


  5. T.J. Carney says:

    I agree with the conclusion of the writer. There aren’t any serious students of our politics or culture that take the TP, or the media hucksters like Beck or Hannity that promote it as a real movement. The working class, small businesses and entrepreneurs, and small farmers are serious about voting in representatives who will work for them and not against them.


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