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Democrats' struggles with working class whites (and why it matters)

Photo by Linda Davidson/Washington Post

New poll numbers out of the Associated Press suggest that Democrats are struggling badly to court white, working class voters in advance of the coming midterm elections, a trend that could have a sizable impact not just on the November election but the 2012 presidential race as well.

In the AP data, white voters without college degrees favor Republican over Democrats by 22 points on the generic congressional ballot -- approximately a doubling of the margin the GOP enjoyed among this sliver of the electorate in 2008.

The data, which has drawn considerable attention over the past few days, is in some ways not terribly surprising.

Democrats have struggled with working class white voters since the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan assiduously -- and successfully -- courted them as part of his electoral coalition. (Hence the term "Reagan Democrats".)

In the 2004 presidential election, Republicans carried white working class voters 61 percent to 38 percent and in 2006, a very good year for Democrats nationally, the party still lost this voting bloc by 9 points.

The story was similar in 2008 as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won non college-educated whites by 18 points while winning all white voters by a smaller 12-point margin.

But, simply because Democrats have struggled for more than a decade to win over white, working class voters doesn't mean the trend line among this demographic isn't important in both the November election and, likely, the fight for the presidency in 2012.

As we wrote way back in July -- seems like a millennium ago! -- the midterm electorate is almost certain to be whiter than the 2008 presidential electorate.

White voters made up 79 percent of the 2006 midterm electorate and comprised 74 percent of the 2008 vote. If the 2010 electoral composition mirrors that of 2006, one Democratic official who closely monitors House race predicted "massive losses" for House and Senate Democrats in November.

White, working class voters are, obviously, a smaller segment of white voters generally -- AP estimates four in ten voters are whites without college degrees -- but they tend to live in areas of the country that are playing host to scads of competitive statewide and downballot contests.

In places like West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- among others -- white working class voters are a dominant (or close to it) electoral force and Democratic struggles to court them are already having major effects.

Republicans lead in Senate races in Ohio and Pennsylvania and the race in West Virginia is a tossup. At the gubernatorial level, Republicans are confident that they will win Pennsylvania while Ohio remains a jump ball. Downballot, there are more than a dozen Democratic-held House seats in that trio of states.

Across-the-board defeats in just those three states -- not to mention places like Michigan and Wisconsin where there are large blocs of white working class voters as well -- could be a major setback for Democrats hoping to avoid tidal wave losses on Nov. 2.

And, looking forward, there are obvious consequences for President Obama if he is not able to staunch the erosion of white working class voters -- particularly in the Upper Midwest --- from the Democratic party.

In the traditional Rust Belt -- Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Illinois and New York -- alone, there are 136 electoral votes up for grabs, slightly more than 50 percent of the 270 either candidate will need to win the presidency.

In 2008, President Obama won seven of those eight states -- losing only West Virginia. It's hard to imagine him losing either his home state of Illinois or New York in 2012 but the other six states are very much up for grabs.

To win them, Obama doesn't need to win white, working class voters. (And, he won't.) But, he does need to avoid being swamped by the eventual Republican nominee among those voters in order to put together a winning electoral coalition.

By Chris Cillizza  | October 7, 2010; 2:40 PM ET
Categories:  White House  
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