If you want to understand why conservatives are relentlessly highlighting the theatrical excesses, violence, and bowel movements of a select few Occupy Wall Street protesters, this chart explains it in a nutshell.

In theory, high economic anxiety — combined with the increased focus on inequality and Wall Street lack of accountability that have resulted from the protests — should help Democrats. In this environment, Dems should have a better shot at winning over working class swing voters — by calling for higher taxes on the rich, more oversight of Wall Street, and nixing tax breaks for corporations, all of which are supported by these voters — than when the focus is on Dem Big Government excess, as it was in 2010.

The battle over what Occupy Wall Street means actually represents a larger battle over this key consistuency. If conservatives can highlight protesters’ excesses to push the cultural buttons of working class voters — making them less receptive to the protests’ message about what’s really gone wrong for them — then they may be able to reduce Dem inroads with these voters. There are some signs this push is working. But if organized labor can get these voters to focus on the overall message embodied by the movement, that’s better for Dems.

Working America, the arm of the AFL-CIO that organizes workers from non-union workplaces, has produced a chart and an accompanying report that demonstrate just how crucial and volatile this constituency really is. The chart, which is based on exit poll data, shows how big the swing was among these voters from 2008 to 2010:

In these five swing states, working class voters — defined as coming from households making under $75,000 — went from a big margin for Obama in 2008 to a negative or equal margin for Dems two years later.

The accompanying report goes even further on a national level. Of the national vote that swung between 2008 and 2010, the largest segment — 44 percent — is made up of these voters, i.e, those under $75,000. Breaking down the numbers further, it finds that white working class voters in households under $50,000 make up one out of every five swing voters.

“The working-class vote is not just vital but volatile,” the report says. “Their changing preferences have shaped the vastly different outcomes of the past two election cycles. As a group, these voters are more affected by the struggling economy than any other. Their votes will be essential to electoral outcomes in 2012.”

This is why Working America and organized labor are standing by the protests, and working so hard to tie them to a larger working class constituency. If a genuine populist message is resonating among these voters next year — if they figure out who’s really on their side and who isn’t — Dems have a better shot at winning them back. Similarly, this is also why conservatives and Republicans are seizing on the protesters’ excesses to exploit the long running cultural fault line between working class voters and middle class liberal activists such as those in Zuccotti Park. The hope is to tar the overall critique of inequality and Wall Street’s excessive influence — as well as Dem policies designed to address them — as radical and extreme, in hopes that resurgent populism won’t persuade these swing voters to give Dems another look.


UPDATE: The full report is now up online.