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The GOP's Weakness: Reagan Democrats -- or Obama Ones?

By Alec MacGillis
As the Republicans engage in a heated contest to determine the next leader of their national party, they are spending some time taking a closer look at the root causes of their political plight.

This week, there was another indication that some of them may be misdiagnosing the problem. At a session in Washington where the half-dozen candidates for Republican National Committee chairman made their case, candidate Saul Anuzis, the chairman of the Michigan GOP, repeated a notion that has gained some currency since Nov. 4. "If you take a look at the constituency that we're losing today, it's the Reagan Democrats," Anuzis said.

The evidence suggests this isn't the case. It is true that Barack Obama performed better than many expected with so-called Reagan Democrats -- conservative, older, working and middle class white Democrats of the sort who voted for Reagan and also voted in large numbers for George W. Bush. Obama held his own with these voters, whom many Democratics feared would avoid him, and actually improved slightly over John Kerry's performance with white voters who do not hold a college degree. He also carried traditionally blue-collar Democratic redoubts like Scranton and the Mahoning Valley in Ohio.

But a far bigger factor behind Obama's victory, and the Republicans' current plight, was his strong performance among an entirely different sector of the electorate -- moderate, independent-minded, college-educated white voters in the suburbs. Obama made up more ground with college-educated white voters over Kerry's 2004 performance than he did with non-college educated white voters. And he picked up key swing states based in large part on the huge gains he made in formerly Republican, upper-income suburbs such as Northern Virginia, suburban Denver, the Raleigh-Durham triangle and suburban Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, the places where he performed worse than Kerry were ones dominated by conservative, working-class Democrats, such as southwestern Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

This was the culmination of a trend that has been underway for more than a decade, as Democrats have pushed out from their strongholds in the cities and inner suburbs to claim an ever greater share of the outer suburbs, and the professional and managerial workers who live in them.

If anyone should understand this, it is Anuzis, because this has been playing out as clearly as anywhere in Michigan, his home state.

Michigan's Macomb County is the original home of the Reagan Democrats, the county where pollster Stan Greenberg in 1984 first used the term to describe working-class Democrats voting for Reagan. But Democratic gains in recent years have been biggest in nearby Oakland County, the more upscale Detroit suburb that used to be a Republican stronghold.

Consider: in 2000, Al Gore edged out George W. Bush by fewer than 10,000 votes in both counties. Obama's margin was bigger in both counties -- but it was far bigger in Oakland, which he won by 96,000 votes, compared with a margin of 36,000 votes in Macomb. His dominance in Oakland County was so striking -- and so in accordance with his dominance nationwide in higher-income suburbs -- that Greenberg himself penned an op-ed after the election titled "Good-bye, Reagan Democrats," declaring that he was from now on going to stop using Macomb as his leading national indicator and use Oakland instead.

Anuzis, and other Republicans, might want to do the same.

Posted at 4:40 PM ET on Jan 7, 2009  | Category:  analysis
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Comments

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I never thought I'd live to see the day when the WaPo got scooped by the National Enquirer (John Edwards affair) and the Globe (Obama's birth certificate) tabloids!

Neither Woodward nor Bernstein are even going to look into the allegations? Not even a peep from the WaPo today about the Electoral College votes being read at 1:35 p.m. eastern time?

Posted by: JakeD | January 8, 2009 8:36 PM

You're welcome (although I am registered Independent and would have been asking the same exact questions if a Republican had won without proving he was a "natural born" citizen too ; )

Posted by: JakeD | January 8, 2009 11:26 AM

I'm going to take this time to thank JakeD for the many laughs, especially over the last few months. His constant and virulent paranoia has been hilarious and very indicative of why the GOP lost, and will continue to lose for the foreseeable future. And with the GOP leadership candidates thinking going further right will work, Obama should have two terms to get the country turned around and going in the right direction. GOPer's like JakeD, long may you rant!!!!

Posted by: katem1 | January 8, 2009 10:30 AM

As JakeD demonstrates, the GOP base and Obama's only opposition is reduced to conspiracy fringe nut whack jobs ranting about "birth certificates".

A basic truth is that the GOP free trade policy of offshoring and outsourcing has directly pitted the American worker against someone in Asia doing the exact same job but for a tenth of the pay. This has tilted the balance of power so heavily in favor of capital against labor that capital has seen no reason to increase wages or benefits to bid for workers. As a result Americans who live on paychecks have seen stagnant or declining real incomes during the Bush years. Republican economic policies have been a massive transfer of wealth from people who live on paychecks to people who live on returns from capital.

Posted by: koremori | January 8, 2009 6:47 AM

It is really encouraging to see the maturation of our democracy. White, educated voters have preferred an African American. Issues matter and not the color of the skin nor the faith you practice.

Strength from diversity.

Openness to all possibilities.

Under one flag we unite, White Caucasians, African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino-Americas, men and women of all hues and colors and age..with the star-spangled banner we march ever onwards.

Viva the greatest country of the world! The most vibrant and energetic democracy with many a mile to go!!

The United States of America!

Posted by: mdsubramonia | January 7, 2009 8:51 PM

I hope that Alan Keyes files a separate legal challenge against every single appointment, law, treaty, or executive order pResident Obama signs.

Posted by: JakeD | January 7, 2009 7:49 PM

TheDiplomat:

Other than him being pro-choice, the primary reason I didn't vote for Obama was the "birth certificate thing".

Posted by: JakeD | January 7, 2009 7:47 PM

Jake is no different than the other loonies. This whole birth certificate thing came after Obama won for a reason. This is their last "hail mary" after McCain's five. Which is more of a way of wasting screen real estate on random news articles than trying to uphold the constitution.

Posted by: TheDiplomat | January 7, 2009 7:42 PM

I don't believe that there were ever any such people as "Reagan Democrats." Certainly in 1980 many voters opted for Reagan over Jimmy Carter because the latter was seen as ineffectual (having been sabotaged and opposed relentlessly by the Washington bureaucracy from day one) and as impotent in the face of the hostage crisis in Iran, and many of those voters had supported Democrats in previous elections. The sword-rattling Reagan appealed very strongly to the swaggering machismo of working-class white males who wanted to lash out at any nation that would dare to challenge America's dominant position in the world, and he was very effective in playing on Americans' nostalgia for a simpler time.

Today's electorate is a tad more sophisticated than it was then, however, and male posturing a la GWB isn't enough anymore. Limbaugh and O'Reilly notwithstanding, cowboy diplomacy and simple answers to complex questions are no longer seen as an adequate substitute for careful deliberation and educated statesmanship. After eight years of Bush/Cheney swagger and neocon nationlism, the candidacy of Barack Obama seemed like a breath of fresh air, and that of McCain/Palin like more-of-the-same. Now that Reaganomics has bankrupted the treasury, and Karl Rove tactics has produced the worst polarization since 1970, the country wants an intelligent, forward-thinking leadership team in D.C. and has looked to the Democratic Party to provide it. The Reagan Democrats, if they ever existed, are now, like JakeD, posting nonsense about birth certificates and wishing somehow they could turn back the clock.

Posted by: sailorashore | January 7, 2009 7:42 PM

Full of what?

Posted by: JakeD | January 7, 2009 7:32 PM

So, JackD you pretty much declared: you are full of it.

Posted by: jackie5 | January 7, 2009 7:21 PM

For the record, I never said he wouldn't be elected -- even Arnold Schwarzenegger could be elected -- whether they can be legally sworn in is an entirely different issue. I am not doing anything to "stop him" other than contributing to the Keyes Legal Defense Fund.

Posted by: JakeD | January 7, 2009 6:35 PM

JakeD will say that since he never produced his long form birth certificate that he wasn't legally sworn-in therefore he wasn't sworn-in.

Posted by: JRM2 | January 7, 2009 6:14 PM

jackie5, how is JakeD going to stop him? He is not. He will continue to complain for years to come. JakeD was around months ago proclaiming the exact same thing, just replace sworn with elected and that date with the Nov 4 2008.

You see where that got sweet boy Jake.

Here is the next proclamation from Jake around 2011, "Barack HUSSEIN Obama, Jr. (assuming that Sr. is even his real father) will not be elected in on November 6, 2012."

Here is the next one after that, "Barack HUSSEIN Obama, Jr. (assuming that Sr. is even his real father) will not be sworn in on January 20, 2013."

Posted by: TheDiplomat | January 7, 2009 5:54 PM

JakeD:

Quick Question, how are you going stop him?

Posted by: jackie5 | January 7, 2009 5:35 PM

Barack HUSSEIN Obama, Jr. (assuming that Sr. is even his real father) will not be sworn in on January 20, 2009.

Posted by: JakeD | January 7, 2009 4:47 PM

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