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Democrats' Problem: White, Working-Class Voters


Here's the flip side of a common political discussion. We hear often that Republicans have a problem with race. Their share of the minority vote has gone down to record lows.


The flipside is that Democrats have lately lost the white vote by huge margins. In a year-ending interview with NPR News, President Obama said white working-class voters are not hearing enough about their economic concerns.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That's not what they read about or hear about in the newspapers. They hear about an immigration debate, or they hear about, you know, a debate surrounding Ferguson. And they think I'm being left out. Nobody seems to be thinking about how tough it is for me right now. Or I've been downscaled. I've lost my job, et cetera.

GREENE: In the midterm election just passed, Democrats sometimes could not even manage 25 percent of the white vote.

INSKEEP: To find out what progressives are thinking about those voting trends, we met Ruy Teixeira. He's a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, which is close to the Obama administration. How big a problem is this for Democrats?

RUY TEIXEIRA: Well, I'd say it's a huge problem. There's no doubt that the demographics of the country are shifting in way that favors Democrats - more minority voters, minority voters more heavily supporting Democrats.

But mathematically, it's quite possible for a lot of that to be neutralized by an increased share of the white vote for the other side - for the Republicans. And that's particularly been the case with the white working class or non-college vote, which Obama and the Democrats have been regularly losing by vast margins. In the last two off-year elections, which have been so spectacularly unsuccessful for the Democrats, they lost the white working-class vote by 30 points.

So the Democrats are always sort of teetering on the edge there in terms of their coalition. They needed to put together their rising constituencies like minorities and unmarried women, professionals, millennial generation folks and what have you. They've got to put that together with a large enough share of the white working-class vote, in particular, to be competitive - and in fact, to be more than competitive, to win and to dominate.

INSKEEP: Two questions come to mind. One having to do with the way that President Obama has assembled a governing coalition. It's been very publicly an effort to assemble a lot of different groups, including groups that have been marginalized in the past in the United States. Is there a way in which that just automatically sends a different message to white voters? This doesn't include you.

TEIXEIRA: Yeah, I actually don't think that's the case. I don't think that's the problem. I think the Democrats are doing what any party would do in a situation where rising constituencies are available to them. They're trying to assemble as many of them as possible into a winning coalition. The problem is that this has been difficult for the Democrats to actually raise the living standards of sort of the broad mass of middle and working-class people, which includes most of these voters.

Now, why is that? Is that 'cause the Democrats didn't care? No, I don't think that's the answer. I think the answer is it's hard to do. We're really just getting to the point now where real wages are starting to rise in the economy as a whole. And that has not gone unnoticed by these kinds of voters, because they know that special bond to the Democratic Party that groups are affiliated with - the Democratic Party do - like Hispanics, like blacks and so on, who see the Democratic Party as their advocate. And even if the economy isn't performing dramatically well, nevertheless they associate that party with their upward mobility. The problem is that white working-class people at this point by and large do not associate the Democratic Party with their economic mobility.

INSKEEP: Is there a side of the Democratic Party or even a part of your own brain saying to you, well, actually, this is not that big a problem because the constituencies that are growing - minority constituencies in America - are constituencies that Democrats have in big numbers? And they're going to be bigger every election.

TEIXEIRA: It's not in my brain, really, but I think it is in some Democrat's brain. I just think 2014 should knock it out of you. I mean, yeah, you can win the presidency where all the stars are aligned and where relatively low turnout constituencies upon which the Democrats now depend will turn out in relatively high number. That's good for the Democrats, because by and large their policies align better with the majority of the American people now than the Republicans' do. But the majority of the American people don't vote a lot of the time. And they certainly don't vote in congressional and off-year elections in as large numbers as the Democrats need. So you actually - it's a necessity. It's not just optional. It's a necessity to do better among these weaker constituencies for the Democrats.

INSKEEP: Ruy Teixeira with the Center for American Progress. Thanks very much.

TEIXEIRA: Delighted. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.