It’s now widely predicted that the 2016 election will be fought heavily around the idea that the economy works far better for the wealthy than it does for working and middle class Americans, who are being left behind by stagnating wages, stalled economic opportunity, and a recovery that’s disproportionately rewarding top earners.
One subplot of that storyline centers on a corollary question. Can Democrats perform better among non-college whites in 2016 than they did in 2012, by fielding a candidate (say, Hillary Clinton) who enjoys a greater cultural affinity with those voters than Barack Obama did, and by speaking directly to their sense that the economy has been rigged for many years against them?
The new Washington Post/ABC News poll starkly illustrates the challenge Democrats face in this regard. It turns out that an overwhelming majority of non-college whites believes the U.S. economic system is stacked in favor of the rich — but far more of those voters also think Republicans, not Democrats, have better ideas to address that problem.
The Post/ABC poll finds that 68 percent of Americans think the U.S. economic system generally favors the wealthy rather than being fair to most Americans (only 27 percent believe the latter). Some 69 percent of white non-college voters believe it favors the wealthy, somewhat higher than the 61 percent of white college-educated voters who believe the same.
But look how non-college whites break down on the question of which party has the better ideas to make the economic system fairer:
Non-college whites overwhelmingly believe the economic system is not fair to most Americans, but substantially more of them prefer GOP ideas on what to do about it. By contrast, other groups are much more evenly divided on this question. Among college-educated whites, Republicans lead by a much smaller 46-38. Independents are almost exactly split. And in a bit of good news for Dems, moderates favor their ideas by 45-34. But among non-college whites, GOP ideas enjoy a 21 point advantage.
We shouldn’t conclude too much from one poll. But some of the Democratic Party’s own senior pollsters believe that Democrats struggle with these voters partly because they no longer believe government can solve their economic problems. Today’s poll may offer some supporting evidence.
It’s also possible that this GOP advantage is infused by a belief among many of these voters that Democratic economic policies benefit people who are poorer than them, at their expense. As Ron Brownstein has argued, the basic divide among these voters pits the Dem belief “that society works better when risk is shared” and “government intervenes in private markets to try to expand both security and opportunity,” versus the GOP argument that “centralized government programs” cannot accomplish those goals and that “Democrats are unduly burdening the ‘makers’ to support (and politically mobilize) the ‘takers.'”
It’s looking as if the 2016 election will be fought around these arguments. Hillary Clinton is in the process of outlining a very robust, interventionist governmental agenda focused squarely on fixing an economy that is “stacked for those at the very top” and restoring income growth that adequately rewards the hard work of ordinary Americans. Republicans are speaking to voters’ economic concerns, but most signs are that the 2016 GOP candidates will mainly hew to the notion that government is to blame for the failure of the recovery to achieve widespread distribution, and that the solution is to get government out of the way and cut taxes for everyone, including those at the very top.
If the Republicans fail to outline a credible economic agenda, and Clinton ruthlessly exposes that fact, it’s possible she could cut into the apparent GOP advantage in this area. But today’s poll suggests those voters may be overwhelmingly willing to give the GOP the benefit of the doubt. It’s also possible that the non-college white share of the vote will continue to shrink in 2016, as some analysts have suggested, mitigating the impact of the GOP edge among these voters. Still, few Dems want to count on that happening, and many have long seen a need to substantially improve the Dem performance among them. Today’s polling perhaps hints at why this has been such a challenge.