Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Are White Working Class Voters a Problem for Democrats?

One of the prominent story lines during the last several primaries was the relative success of Hillary Clinton among white working-class voters. This, of course, raised questions about whether and how Obama could attract the white working-class vote. Although I'm not sure how serious he was, Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, said in an interview on NPR in late April that he wasn't worried about Obama's poor showing among white working-class voters because they typically vote Republican.

Data from the 2004 and 2000 exit polls (below) only provide limited support for this this claim.

There are a couple of take away points from these data. First, the last two Democratic presidential candidates have faired poorly among white voters. Kerry only managed to garner 41% of the white vote, while Gore took in 44%. Indeed, the white electorate is not a natural source of Democratic votes; so, taken as a whole, it is true that whites tend to vote Republican.

Perhaps the most important point, however, is that it is only among low-income whites that Democratic candidates have had even a fighting chance in the last two elections. Both Gore and Kerry won among voters with less the $15,000 annual income, and both candidates narrowly lost among voters with annual incomes between $15,000 and $29,000. It wasn't even close in any of the other income groups.

So, yes, the white vote has not been friendly to Democratic candidates of late--but it is the much-discussed white working-class vote (especially the poorest whites) that is most likely to side with Democratic candidates. It is this group of white voters who are probably most easily persuaded to vote Democratic. Writing them off could be a bad strategy.