“The most salient demographic change from 2008 to 2012 was the drop in white voters” argues election observer Sean Trende. To get an idea of what happened to these voters—working-class, rural, and living in the northern part of the country—it is helpful to look to Pennsylvania’s twelfth congressional district. There a 2010 special election showed the weakness of a Republican agenda that is pro-business plus nothing.
Tim Burns was the Republican candidate for Pennsylvania’s partly rural, partly manufacturing, overwhelmingly white, twelfth district. Burns was a full-spectrum social and economic conservative and successful businessman who ran against high spending, large deficits, and “Nancy Pelosi’s values.” The Democrat Mark Critz ran against Burns on an interesting assortment of issues. Critz hit Burns for wanting to cut entitlements. Critz also hit him for supporting “tax breaks for outsourcing” and for laying off his own employees. The last two should be familiar Democratic themes from Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, as should the closing line of the anti-Burns campaign. The Democrats said Burns was “out for himself, not us.”
Despite their similarities, the Democratic attacks probably had a different impact in the 2012 presidential race than in the 2010 congressional special election. Obama was very different from the Democrat Critz. Unlike Critz, Obama was pro-Obamacare (of course), pro-Medicare cuts in Obamacare and pro-cap-and-trade legislation. There were probably quite a few Critz voters who could not vote for Obama, but they probably didn’t vote for Romney either. These were some of the missing white voters.
These white voters are often quite happy to vote for a local Democratic candidate who is (among other things) anti-gun control and pro-energy. They don’t want to vote for an Acela corridor liberalism that prioritizes raising energy prices and more gun regulation. They just need a reason to vote Republican. They need a reason that is relevant to their lives.
Trende describes what he thinks winning back these voters would mean for the GOP:
It means abandoning some of its more pro-corporate stances. This GOP would have to be more “America first” on trade, immigration, and foreign policy; less pro-Wall Street and big business in its rhetoric; more Main Street/populist on economics.
This is partly right. Many of these voters probably are hostile to foreign trade, but Republicans can likely make gains without promising to start trade wars, and Republicans can remain pro-business in their rhetoric as long as they aren’t merely pro-business. There is more than one way to be populist.
What Republicans really need is a set of policies where people can understand the direct benefits to themselves. It could mean a tax policy that increases the take-home pay of middle-class parents. Such a policy would still be pro-business. It would cut taxes on investment, but it would also increase the paychecks of working-class families.
Some people lose their jobs and have to piece together work from several part-time jobs, none of which offer health insurance. Even more fear such a scenario. Republicans should offer a set of policies so that those families will not have to worry about a health disaster that occurs during a break in coverage while they look for a full-time job. Such health insurance policies are not a substitute for a full-time job, but they can reassure families that the trauma of a lay-off will not be compounded with a health crisis that will indefinitely destroy their finances.
The good news is that policies that would help with the missing blue-collar whites would also somewhat help with the nonwhite voters with whom Republicans did so terribly. The dynamics here are complicated, but when the College Republican surveyed young people (a disproportionately nonwhite population), they found that while most young voters were disappointed with President Obama, they gave him credit for “trying” while saying the Republicans had no middle-class agenda. They were leery of Obamacare but “at least Obama was making strides to start the process of reforming health care.” Many nonwhite voters don’t like the Democratic position because they think it is ideal. They like it because it is the only game in town, and at least some nonwhite voters are being lost by default.
For all their differences, the missing white voters and disappointed Democratic-voting nonwhites have one thing in common. Neither sees a reason to vote Republican that is relevant to their lives. The Republicans could do better among both groups by giving them some reasons.