The Class Divide Deepens

President Obama's embrace of gay marriage, as we noted in a recent post, has the potential to reinforce his support among well-educated white voters while deepening his difficulties among blue-collar whites. Divergent attitudes about the economy seem likely to harden that division as well.

On Wednesday, Gallup released new national results showing that while a plurality of Americans remains negative on their immediate financial situation, a strong majority expects to be better off one year from now. The variation in those attitudes follows tracks familiar from the gay rights debate.

As we noted, polls show much more support for gay marriage among college-educated white voters (especially women) than those without advanced degrees. Those upscale whites, Gallup found, are also somewhat more satisfied with their immediate economic situation and more optimistic about their trajectory over the next year.

Overall, Gallup found that 37 percent of adults say their economic situation has improved over the past year, while 42 percent said they are worse off and 20 percent describe themselves as essentially standing in place. On that measure, according to figures provided by Gallup, blue-collar whites are deeply discouraged: just 24 percent of non-college white women, and 26 percent of non-college white men say they are better off than a year ago. Nearly twice as many respondents in both groups say they are worse off than twelve months ago.

College-educated whites are not brimming with satisfaction either, but the balance is much closer. Among college-educated white men, 35 percent say they are better off, 41 percent worse off; among college-educated white women 36 percent say they are better off and 44 percent say they are worse off.

Looking forward, Gallup found that 63 percent of all adults say they expect to be better off next year at this time, while only 18 percent expect to be worse off. While optimists have outnumbered pessimists on that question every time Gallup has asked that question since 1977, the 63 percent currently expecting better times is midway between the readings in January 1996 (66 percent) and January 2004 (60 percent), years when incumbent presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush respectively were reelected. (But, as Gallup noted in a recent release, attitudes are much less favorable for Obama on other measures of the nation's current mood.)

All whites expect their financial situation to improve over the next year, but those with college-degrees are more optimistic. The most optimistic are college-educated women-the group that also registers the most support for Obama's position on social issues like gay rights and access to contraception. Among those well-educated women, fully 60 percent expect to be better off next year, nearly triple the 21 percent who expect to lose ground. A comparable 55 percent of college-plus white men expect to be better off, compared to 21 percent who expect to lose ground.

Non-college whites are somewhat more restrained in their expectations: 50 percent of both blue-collar white men and women expect to be better off, about double the share that expects to lose ground.

Minorities are the most optimistic group of all on both fronts. Gallup found that 54 percent of non-white respondents said they are better off than a year ago-nearly double the share that said they are worse off. Looking forward, a resounding 79 percent of non-whites say they expect to be better off in 12 months, while only 10 percent expect to be worse off. On gay marriage, minorities are more supportive than the non-college whites, but less so than the college whites. On the economy, minorities exceed both groups in their optimism. And that could be critical for Obama, as he tries to maintain as much of his 2008 minority support as possible, amid polls consistently showing him falling below his showing last time among whites-especially the blue-collar whites cool to his social agenda and still glum about the economy.