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Beyond God and Guns: Why the GOP May Lose the White Working Class

A new study busts harmful myths about white working class men and women.


What is “the white working class,” that much discussed, often criticized demographic group that many say will decide this election? You know them: They’re “bitter” and “cling” to “guns and religion,”  in the (otherwise sympathetic) words of 2008 candidate Barack Obama. Many are members of “the 47 percent” of Americans dependent on government  derided by Mitt Romney, who the Republican insists will vote for Obama – except many don’t know they’re in that moocher class, and plan to vote for Romney.

Just in time comes a study by the  Public Religion Research Institute, which confounds most stereotypes of the white working class, while confirming a couple. It may force us to give up our caricature of the last group of Americans it’s still politically safe to caricature. They’re less conservative than most political analysts give them credit for – if you leave out the South.

First, a few definitional ground rules. As someone  whose bookis often described as being “about” the white working class, and why it left the Democratic Party, I’m painfully aware of the limitations of data and definitions of that much-discussed group. This study defines them as “non-Hispanic white Americans without a four-year college degree who hold non-salaried jobs.” Some polls define the white working class by income, but increasingly the more politically unique group – and the most politically troublesome for Democrats — is those without college degrees. Also: This is a new study and it doesn’t track the same group over election cycles, so we can’t know if their opinions have changed in the age of Obama, but it’s fascinating and useful nonetheless.

As most analysts have asserted, they are, as a group, trouble for Obama — in mid-August Romney led 48-35 — but there were interesting regional differences. Romney led Obama by a staggering 40 points in the South (62-22) while Obama actually led Romney 44-38 in the Midwest (hello, auto industry rescue?), and the two candidates were nearly tied in the West and Northeast. White working-class Protestants favor Romney 2-1, while Catholics are evenly split. Likewise, Romney clobbers Obama with men, but the candidates are tied for the votes of women. And younger white working-class voters support Obama.

A pattern emerges: Obama is doing surprisingly well with white working-class voters — but he may have to write off most older, Southern, white working-class Protestant men.

Overall, the study debunks lots of stereotypes: These non-college-educated whites are just about as likely as the college-educated to strongly identify with the Tea Party (13 vs. 10 percent), or to say the group shares their goals (34-31). Only one in 20 say abortion or same-sex marriage is the most important issue deciding their vote. More (50 percent) say abortion should be legal in all or most cases than illegal (45 percent.) Maybe surprisingly (at least to the Catholic bishops), a solid majority (56 percent) of white working-class Catholics think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 53 percent of Protestants think it should be illegal in all or most cases. They are just about as religiously observant as college-educated whites, although they are much more likely to identify as evangelical Protestants.

The study also confounds those who believe white working-class voters consistently vote against their own economic interests: Those who received food stamps in the last two years preferred Obama to Romney 48 to 36 percent, while two-thirds of those who hadn’t preferred Romney.

Oh, and this is fun: “Equal numbers of white working-class Americans (28 percent) and white college-educated Americans (27 percent) identify Fox News as their most trusted media source.”

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