Both President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney will be arriving at the presidential debate podiums with the mud still drying on their shoes from hard campaigning in Ohio and Colorado. In each of these and other battleground states, the candidates will be making their cases with particular attention to white working-class voters.
As much analysis this election cycle has shown, the national polling numbers often hide significant regional or state-level differences. One of the most striking findings from Public Religion Research Institute’s recent Race, Class, and Culture Survey was that Romney’s considerable lead over Obama among white working-class voters was almost entirely due to an outside lead in one region of the country, the enduringly conservative South (62 percent vs. 22 percent). In the remaining regions of the country, white working-class voters were fairly evenly divided: West (46 percent Romney vs. 41 percent Obama), Northeast (42 percent Romney vs. 38 percent Obama), and Midwest (36 percent Romney vs. 44 percent Obama).
In key states such as Ohio and Colorado, white working-class voters are critical. In 2008, non-college educated white voters made up half (50 percent) of the electorate in Ohio, and McCain won them 54 percent to 44 percent. In Colorado, non-college educated white voters comprised about one-third (23 percent) of the electorate, and McCain won them 57 percent to 42 percent.
Both candidates are heading into the debates with less than perfect records when it comes to white working-class voters. In 2008, Obama suggested that some rural voters are “bitter” and “cling to guns or religion or to antipathy to people who aren’t like them” —a comment for which he later apologized and called “my biggest boneheaded move.” More recently, with a comment that has caused something of a media firestorm, Romney asserted that 47 percent of the country “pay no income tax” and see themselves as “victims” who “believe the government has a responsibility to care for them.” Romney also drew a conclusion that has been following his campaign: “And so my job is not to worry about those people—I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Fresh from their tours of Ohio and Colorado, both Romney and Obama have their work cut out for them in battleground states with this group, which constitutes more than one-third (36 percent) of all Americans. Specifically, they will need to sidestep two common stereotypes about white working-class Americans. Both Obama and Romney would do well to avoid these prevailing myths, not just because it is bad politics, but also because these stereotypes are not true.
Myth 1 : White working-class Americans are animated by culture war issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Contrary to some conventional wisdom prevalent in more liberal circles, white working-class Americans are not primarily politically animated by social issues like abortion or same-sex marriage. A majority (53 percent) of white working-class Americans say the economy is the most important issue for their vote this year, while only 1-in-20 say the same of either abortion (3 percent) or same-sex marriage (2 percent). Rather than manning the barricades on these issues, they are in fact divided: half (50 percent) say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 45 percent say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Similarly, although half (50 percent) of white working-class Americans oppose same-sex marriage, a substantial minority (43 percent) are in favor.
Myth 2 . White working-class Americans see themselves as victims and have abandoned traditional religiosity and a strong work ethics. With a thesis that echoed Romney’s recent comments, conservative sociologist Charles Murray argued that the heart of problems faced by white working-class Americans were there erosion of cultural capital, specifically that they were abandoning traditional values, becoming less religious and less hard-working over time. But PRRI survey’s findings refute this notion: white working-class Americans are no less likely to attend religious services than Americans overall (48 percent vs. 50 percent attend at least once a month), and are no less likely to report that religion is important in their lives (60 percent vs. 59 percent). White working-class Americans are also not passively waiting to receive government handouts but are working hard, average significantly more hours of work per week than white college-educated Americans (51 vs. 46).
There are a few straightforward things that both candidates would do well to address in the debate. It is true that white working-class Americans are frustrated, especially about the slow economic recovery. It is also true that white working-class Americans perceive the deck to be stacked against them, as they are simultaneously working harder and struggling more financially than their college-educated counterparts. And it’s true that, compared to the communities white college-educated Americans call home, white working-class Americans are experiencing much higher levels of joblessness, lack of opportunities for young people, home foreclosures, and lack of funding for good schools. The task for the candidates in this first debate is to move past the stereotypes and address these issues with respect and empathy.