Palin, Plumbers, and Polarization

Chris Caldwell, on class and the election:

... the Palin pick was the electoral equivalent of an atomic bomb. It was one of those tactics that turns into a strategy. What the Palin pick did was to unleash a latent class tension in American life and turn the two parties, previously somewhat socially mixed, into vehicles of social classes. Prominent intellectuals who once leaned rightward sorted themselves into the Obama camp. So did most north-eastern Republicans. The party has focused on its proletarian rump. Rallies have grown more strident, with howls of 'Communist!' when Obama's name is mentioned. McCain singled out an Ohio man -- 'Joe the Plumber' -- who had buttonholed Obama as he canvassed his neighbourhood. Soon McCain and Palin were building a following of tradesmen with sobriquets out of children's books: Tito the Builder, Suzanne the Sandwich-Maker. There have been a lot of books lately urging Republicans to think more about the interests of their lower-middle-class base. That is a problem that is going to take care of itself.

The Democrats are now the partisan home of the upper crust of the American meritocracy, of the credentialled classes, the classes that believe every endeavour is some variety of IQ test. USA Today did a review of fund-raising data and discovered that Obama dominates fundraising among the leaders of 'finance, insurance, real estate, health, communications and law'. His campaign has run through hundreds of millions more than McCain's, and will spend a quarter of a billion dollars on television alone before this election is over. Obama has far more than twice as many ads up in Colorado, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. In Florida, he has run 18,909 ads to McCain's 5,702. The Democratic party is the vehicle through which, after a populist interlude, the governing classes are proposing to take their country back. Obama is a restoration candidate but that doesn't mean he has a plan.

There's some smart analysis here, especially in the latter paragraph, but I don't know what Caldwell means by "a problem that is going to take care of itself." It certainly didn't take care of itself in this election: Instead, you had a lot of posturing from the Republican ticket about how the GOP is the more proletarian party, joined to very little substance addressed to the actual interests of lower-middle-class voters. If the Palin pick had actually turned into a vehicle of class polarization, and if for every lost country-club Republican the GOP ticket were adding a Joe the Plumber or a Tito the Builder to its pool of voters, then the polls wouldn't look nearly so dire for McCain. But compare the last Pew poll conducted in this race to the results from 2004. Among voters without a college degree, George W. Bush beat John Kerry by 53 to 47 percent; in 2008, Obama's going into today's vote leading 47 to 43 percent in that working-class demographic. The same goes if you define class in terms of income rather than education. In 2004, Kerry beat Bush by just one point among voters making $35,000-$50,000; among voters making $50,000-$75,000, Bush beat Kerry by thirteen points. Fash-forward to '08, and according to Pew, McCain's beating Obama by only six points in the $50,000 to $75,000 demographic, and he's losing to the Democrat by seven points in among voters making between $35,000 and $50,000.

In other words, the GOP has lost ground both among the elites and among the proles in this campaign. The Palin-and-the-plumber strategy didn't polarize the race by socioeconomic class: It cost the Republicans votes among the upper crust, most likely, without gaining them anything with the Joe Sixpack demographic, which is going for Obama too. All of this is subject to revision pending tonight's actual results, but for the moment it looks like the GOP's relationship to working class voters worsened considerably between 2004 and 2008, Palin-related class tensions notwithstanding, creating a problem for Republicans that may be resolved eventually (ahem), but almost certainly won't take care of itself.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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