The conventional wisdom in American politics is that Democrats win poor voters, Republicans win the rich, and the two sides battle over the middle class. That used to be true – indeed, that was basically the case during the earliest Whig-Democratic battles in the 1830s and 1840s, and the Truman/Dewey contest of 1948 was a pretty straightforward class conflict. But those traditional class cleavages have really broken down in the last quarter century or so.
The GOP in the South was once limited to the growing suburbs around “New South” cities like Dallas and Tampa, but lately the party has made headway in downscale areas like southern Georgia and northeast Mississippi, as well as border states like West Virginia and Kentucky. At the same time, Democrats have been on the rise in the wealthier suburbs of the major Northern cities.
It’s this latter group of voters I want to talk about today. They once used to be a mainstay in the Republican coalition, but no longer. Can Romney win them back?
To appreciate the decline of the GOP in these suburban, upscale areas, I want to look at the GOP “tilt” of four, once classically Republican suburban counties – Westchester County, New York (outside New York City), Montgomery County, Pennsylvania (outside Philadelphia), Lake County, Illinois (outside Chicago), and Orange County California (outside Los Angeles). All four of these counties had been onetime anchors of postwar Republicanism, but they have all trended remarkably toward the Democrats.
(Note: “tilt” is the extent to which a county votes above or below the national GOP average.)
The last time Westchester or Montgomery voted Republican for president was actually 1988, and, as you can see, all four have moved away from the GOP; although the start of this drift differs by county, it essentially coincides with the rise of Southern Republicanism in particular, and in general the growth of rural, downscale GOP voters. This also corresponds with Clinton's "New Democrat" message of fiscal responsibility and social moderation, which subsequent Democrats -- Gore, Kerry, and Obama -- have been depending on ever since.
We can also see this most dramatically when we look at polling data. The next graph shows the Republican tilt of high-income voters, defined by percentiles to enable us to compare elections over time.
While upper-middle income voters have been fairly stable, check out the extraordinary movement of the wealthiest voters. Their high water mark with the GOP was actually backing Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter, a rural Georgian Democrat. Since then, they have moved slowly but surely away from the GOP, and by 2008 they were actually a swing constituency, breaking 52-46 for Obama, precisely what the nation as a whole did.
This is a huge political problem for the Republican party, for two reasons.
First, these voters should find the GOP message of pro-growth and limited government appealing; clearly they once did. The party’s messaging must be off in some way. In all likelihood, the GOP’s increased emphasis on cultural/social issues in the last 30 years has been a drag in these places, but the party should be able to articulate cultural conservatism without alienating these upscale suburbanites. This messaging failure has cost the GOP the state of Pennsylvania in the last three presidential elections – as Western Pennsylvania has moved toward the GOP, metro Philly has moved toward the Democrats, thus keeping the state blue.
Second, the party already is continuously blasted by Democrats for being unduly dependent upon the demands of the wealthy. Given that this is never going to change, wouldn’t it be nice if the party could actually win the wealthy?
This is where Mitt Romney comes into play. I can think of several reasons why he might be able to reverse the party’s decline with the well-to-do.
To start, and as mentioned above, Barack Obama won these voters in 2008 in part because of the reputation Bill Clinton had created for the Democrats as a party focused on economic growth and cultural moderation. Obama’s 2012 campaign, on the other hand, looks to be an us-versus-them rehashing of Truman’s 1948 candidacy. The upscale voters 64 years did not go for that, which suggests Romney might have an opening.
Additionally, Romney’s political message this cycle has been relentlessly focused on the economy, in sharp contrast to his more cultural pitch in 2008 (not to mention the party’s typically heavy focus on cultural issues since about 1992). This is exactly what these upscale suburbanites should be looking for.
Finally, his background in business and his stint as Massachusetts governor gives him a social affinity to these sorts of upscale voters. There really has not been a GOP nominee with this kind of background since George H.W. Bush, whom these voters supported in 1988. They should be able to relate to him.
Preliminary evidence suggests that there is an opening for Romney here. In the 2012 GOP primary, his best voters tended to be upscale suburbanites, particularly the very well-to-do.
Obviously, we cannot directly correlate primary results to general election results–as the universe of voters is distinctly different. Still, it stands to reason that if Romney could appeal to upscale conservative Republicans in the primary, he could do so with upscale independents in the general. (And, for what it is worth, Obama did very well with upscale liberals in the primary and very poorly with white downscale Democrats; in the general election we saw the same pattern repeat. So, the primaries can convey information about the general election.)
What might the GOP gain from a surge among the upscale? It is all but certain that Obama will carry California, Illinois, and New York. There would have to be a severe economic collapse between now and November to swing those states to the GOP. But Pennsylvania is another story altogether. If Romney can hold the working class whites who have been moving to the GOP and pick up the upscale suburbanites around metro Philadelphia that have been voting Democratic since 1992, he should carry the Keystone State, virtually guaranteeing electoral victory.
Final point. This analysis just goes to show the difficult nature of discussing whether and how a candidate “connects with people.” There are all sorts of different people in this country – and some candidates appeal better to some than others. Like any other candidate, Romney has his strengths and weaknesses – a key example of the latter was downscale whites, who were generally reticent to back him during the primary.
The good news for the GOP this time around is that these very same downscale whites could not connect with Obama in 2008, and probably will not be able to do so again, meaning that Romney will not have to work to win states like Kentucky and West Virginia. That’s fortunate for Republicans, because against a candidate like Hillary Clinton I think he would be the underdog in both states. But against Obama, they are off the table, meaning that Romney will have to connect with a different group of voters – the upscale, white suburbanites.
Can he do that? We shall see.