It’s been widely observed that Mitt Romney’s attacks on Obama over Medicare, welfare, dependency and “redistribution” are about driving up Romney’s share of working class white support. Romney — who may need two thirds of that vote to win — is arguing that Obama isn’t really looking out for their interests and wants to redistribute their hard-earned money and medical benefits to those other people.
So today’s report on white working class Americans from the Public Religion Research Institute is a must read. It defines them as ”non-Hispanic white Americans without a four-year college degree who hold non-salaried jobs, and make up one third (36 percent of all Americans,” and it sheds light on what all this stuff is all about.
On “dependency,” the study finds that large numbers of working class whites (46 percent) have received Social Security or disability payments over the last two years; more than a fifth have received food stamps; 19% have received unemployment.
Yet the study also finds that three quarters of working class whites believe poor people have become too dependent on government assistance. There’s obviously overlap there, which bears out what some have already pointed out — many of these voters simply won’t think Romney’s comments about the freeloading 47 percent, or about government “dependency” in general, are about them.
But the findings on “redistribution” are also revealing. White working class voters want to soak the rich, and they agree with key aspects of Obama’s views about capitalism and inequality.
Nearly two thirds of working class whites want to hike taxes on those over $1 million. More than half say one of our biggest problems is that we “don’t give everyone an equal chance in life.” Seventy-eight percent of them blame America’s economic problems on corporations moving jobs overseas and 69 percent on Wall Street making risky decisions.
In fairness, 69 percent also blame government regulation and 64 percent blame Obama’s policies. But as Molly Ball notes, there is clearly a strong strain of economic populism and a powerful skepticism about unfettered capitalism among them.
And this gets us back to what this is all about. Obama is hammering Romney over Bain outsourcing, his own wealth and low tax rates, his proposed tax cuts for the rich, and the ways the overall Romney/Ryan agenda would redistribute wealth upward, because these voters are clearly receptive to this kind of populism. Romney, meanwhile, is countering all that with his own message about all the ways Obama allegedly wants to redistribute wealth downward to the dependent poor, a narrative that may also resonate with their views.
Romney will likely win this vote decisively. But as this study shows, there are clearly aspects of Obama’s message and Romney’s business past and priorities that could give enough of them pause to prevent Romney from getting them in the overwhelming numbers he needs .
UPDATE: I should have noted that the study was funded by the Bend the Arc Foundation and Nathan Cummings Foundation, which appear to lean liberal.