"Abandoning the White Working Class," Continued

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Nov. 29 2011 9:49 AM

"Abandoning the White Working Class," Continued

Tom Edsall's story about Obama and the white working class has gone truly viral, as stories that tingle nerves with other columnists tend to do.  I just chuckled at the way Fox Nation packaged Edsall with a headline about the "Obama campaign" abandoning whites and a photo of a grim president flanked by non-abandoned black people. But it's not breaking news when Fox Nation oversells a story.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

No, the really interesting "takes" on Edsall are still coming. And they're getting further and further from the source material -- a Center for American Progress report by John Halpin and Ruy Texiera, analyzing how the Obama campaign could scrape together 270 electoral votes. Remember the Fox Nation headline? Obama Campaign to Abandon White Working Class? That's not literally true. It's not the campaign -- it's two academics who wrote a report for a think tank. And they don't even say that the voters should be abandoned, only that they can't be won. You're not "rejecting" Angelina Jolie's advances; she's not answering your phone calls. She's not interested.

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Anyway, to the copycats! William McGurn, a speechwriter for Rupert Murdoch, pens a WSJ op-ed with the subtle-as-a-heart-attack headline "Obama Abandons the White Working Class."

Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin made headlines for making official what everyone has known unofficially for some time: The Democratic Party is abandoning the white working class.
Everybody deserves representation, of course, and who knows? That coalition may indeed put Obama over the top. But the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey--the party that prided itself on championing the ordinary working American--has utterly vanished.

Texeira and Halpin didn't say that the Democrats are "abandoning" or should abandon the white working class. They wrote that the growth of other ethnic groups and educated whites makes it possible to win with a lower share of the white vote. It's a fact of life, not a strategy.

[I]f Obama receives similar support in 2012 as in 2008 (a 4-point deficit among white college graduates and an 18-point deficit among white working-class voters) he will win the popular vote by about as much as he did in his first election bid, even if his minority support drops from 80 per- cent to 75 percent as we have conservatively assumed.
Indeed, he will still win the popular vote (50-48) in this scenario if white working- class support replicates the stunning 30-point deficit congressional Democrats suffered in 2010 but white college-graduate support remains steady. That is remarkable. If white college-graduate support also replicates its relatively poor 2010 performance for the Democrats (a 19 point deficit), however, Republicans will win the popular vote by 3 points (50-47).
Another way of illustrating how poorly Obama can do between these two groups of white voters and still win is to use Democratic presidential support rates from the 2004 election. In this scenario, Obama would lose the white working-class vote by 23 points and the white college-graduate vote by 11 points as Kerry did in 2004. Obama would still win the popular vote by 50-48 if that happened,13 indicat- ing just how much the country has changed in the eight years since Kerry’s defeat.

The report explains how this will work from state to state. In Colorado, for example, "Obama should greatly benefit from ongoing shifts in the declining white voter pool that are likely to produce a 4-point decrease in white working-class voters and a 2-point increase in white college graduates in 2012." This is pessimistic math, not a call for abandonment. What would "abandoning" mean? Deciding not to target voters, giving up on policies that would appeal to them or help them out, redistributing their wealth and giving it to the voters you can count on. A September NYT report about the Obama re-election strategy, cited by Edsall, revealed that the campaign was banking more heavily on wins in states with large non-white populations to cut against losses in whiter states. The same story had Republicans conceding that it would be harder for them to win those states. The Democrats keep losing white voters, and the GOP keeps failing to win breakthroughs with Hispanics and blacks.

What about the second and third points, that Obama is effectively abandoning whites because he's pushing their wealth to other people? McGurn argues, in an aside, that "whether it's drilling for oil or putting up a shopping mall, today's Democratic Party seems opposed to most of the private-sector jobs that deliver opportunity to those without a college degree." The Obama administration's war on shopping mall construction is news to me, but I think McGurn is making part of a larger cultural argument about what it feels like Democrats are doing. The best expession of this came in a 2010 essay by Angelo Codevilla titled "The Ruling Class," which has become highly-cited among some conservatives, but remained pretty obscure to everyone else. With a lot of feeling, but not much data, Codevilla argues that the "country class" of conservatives and self-actualizers is thwarted by an elite ruling class that benefits from keeping people dependent on government. If you believe that, then it doesn't really matter whether Obama's policies who the Democrats' policies are designed to benefit.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.