Last week’s election indicates that the GOP marriage with the white working class is on the rocks. That’s bad news, since the epic Republican landslide in 2010 was fueled by record-high margins among these voters. It’s doubly bad for the GOP frontrunner, multimillionaire Mitt Romney, who is already struggling to connect with non-college grads in the primaries. If white working-class independents need to be wooed to win in 2012—and they do—Republicans need to ask themselves: Is Romney the right man to do the wooing?
As in any troubled relationship, the cause of the GOP’s difficulties is simple: failure to listen to the other’s needs. On issue after issue, the opinions of the GOP’s conservative base are out of step with those of white working-class independents. Rather than grasp this fact, however, many Republican political leaders have listened solely to the base and ignored the other partner in the marriage.
The chief example is the Ohio referendum that repealed the GOP’s elimination of public-sector unions’ collective bargaining rights. Properly recognizing that public-sector unions have driven up compensation to unaffordable levels, union reform was a top priority of the GOP base. Ohio voters, however, disagreed by a 61-39 percent margin.
A close examination of the results shows how widespread the repudiation was. Repeal was narrowly endorsed in only six counties, all strongly Republican. Everywhere else, the margin of repeal was high. Turnout was also high, about 90 percent of the 2010 total, and slightly skewed to Republican regions of the state. In a state where half the voters are whites without a college degree, the conclusion is inescapable: The white working-class independents who voted en masse for Ohio Republicans 12 months ago nearly unanimously rejected the state GOP’s top priority. Since no Republican has ever been elected president without carrying Ohio, that’s a bad sign.
Nor is Ohio an isolated example of the GOP and white working class’s failure to communicate. The results from April’s Wisconsin judicial election, a proxy war on Wisconsin’s collective bargaining reform, showed strong GOP falloff in white working-class areas. Republicans also lost a special election in New York’s 26th Congressional District because white working-class voters backed a populist third-party candidate. Republicans lost a seat in the New Jersey state legislature last week despite Gov. Chris Christie’s popularity. They barely took control of the Virginia state senate.
This is happening because the differences between white working-class independents and the GOP’s conservative base are becoming too substantial to ignore. The GOP base voter believes the deficit is as large a problem as the economy; the white working-class independent does not. The GOP base voter believes cutting entitlements is necessary to cut the deficit and that taxes on the rich should not be raised; the white working-class independent disagrees. The GOP base voter wants to stay in Iraq and Afghanistan; the white working-class independent wants to come home. The GOP base voter scorns Occupy Wall Street; the white working-class independent thinks the Occupiers have something of a point.
In the past, Republican politicians would respond to such differences by avoiding areas of disagreement. But that option is no longer possible. Avoiding the deficit now means America will turn into Italy later. Conservative Republicans need to understand why white working-class independents disagree with them. They need to see if there is a way to bring the white working class on board.
Even if Republicans find the right message, though, a messenger has to be able to deliver it. That’s the Democrats’ problem right now: President Obama is saying what white working-class independents want to hear—they just don’t find him credible.
Which brings us to Mitt Romney. Is he the man to court white working-class independents, or is he the GOP’s Obama, a man unable to connect with the voters he needs?
Early indications are not inspiring. While Governor Romney did well among Massachusetts white working-class independents in his 2002 victory, in the 2008 primaries he failed to make much of an impression among Republicans with a similar profile. His support was noticeably skewed to the affluent suburbs populated by college-educated voters. The polls in the 2012 race continue to show he runs well behind more conservative competitors among the non-college educated.
One could dismiss this and argue that these Republican voters will ultimately back whomever the party nominates. But a recent Wall Street Journal poll confirms that Romney’s problem extends to white working-class independents as well. The poll, released last week, found that an unnamed generic Republican beats President Obama among the white working class by 12 points, 48 percent to 36 percent. Paired with Romney, however, Obama runs even at 44 percent.
Despite all their advantages, Republicans won only 52 percent of the popular vote in the House last year. They achieved this total because of their record-high 63 percent to 33 percent margin of victory among the white working class. In other words, if the Republican nominee’s share of the white working-class vote slips below 60 percent, there is virtually no chance he will get a majority of the national popular vote in 2012. If the share slips closer to McCain’s 58 percent in 2008, Obama’s reelection is assured.
There is still time for the GOP leadership and Romney to recognize the problem and act. Failure to do so, however, will mean Republicans are placing all their 2012 eggs in the anti-Obama basket. That’s a highly leveraged bet for a traditionally risk-averse party to make.
Henry Olsen is a vice president at the American Enterprise Institute.