Securing the Republican Advantage

The GOP is already making gains with middle-class voters—if it follows the right path, it can solidify them.

In the summer of 2002, as President George W. Bush coasted at popularity levels that looked like the traveling speeds on a German highway, two liberal writers published an audacious prophecy: The United States was shifting to the left.

In “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” John Judis and Ruy Teixeira identified deep trends that, they predicted, must inevitably enhance their party in the years to come. In the elections of 2006 and 2008, their prediction seemed to come true. In 2006, Democrats not only elected a majority in both houses of Congress —they had done that often enough before—but a liberal majority for the first time since the election of 1964. Two years later, a biracial law professor with an exotic name was carried into the White House by a wave of support from young people, urban professionals, single women, and nonwhites, again just as Judis and Teixeira had predicted.

As the saying goes however, predictions are difficult, especially about the future.

President Obama was re-elected, but with 3 1/2 million fewer votes in 2012 than in 2008. Down ballot, over the three elections 2010, 2012, and 2014, Republicans have won majorities in Congress and in the states unprecedented since before the Great Depression.

In the face of this recalcitrant reality, Judis has reconsidered his thesis of a dozen years ago. In the columns of The Atlantic’s sister publication, National Journal, Judis has discerned an “Emerging Republican Advantage.”

Republicans are gaining dramatically among a group that had tilted toward Democrats in 2006 and 2008: Call them middle-class Americans. These are voters who generally work in what economist Stephen Rose has called "the office economy." In exit polling, they can roughly be identified as those who have college—but not postgraduate—degrees and those whose household incomes are between $50,000 and $100,000. (Obviously, the overlap here is imperfect, but there is a broad congruence between these polling categories.)

The defection of these voters—who, unlike the white working class, are a growing part of the electorate—is genuinely bad news for Democrats, and very good news indeed for Republicans. The question, of course, is whether it is going to continue. It's tough to say for sure, but I think there is a case to be made that it will.

Unlike the massive sea change described in The Emerging Democratic Majority, this new Republican advantage is not decisive in itself. Yet, as Judis details, it’s a substantial enough change to sway outcomes—and to compel Judis to rethink his former view that politics would automatically unfold to the advantage of liberals and Democrats. It turns out that politics isn't automatic. History isn’t driven by impersonal forces, but by men and women who think for themselves. Their thinking is drifting in directions Judis did not expect during the Bush years. (For the record, I served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush for economic speechwriting from 2001 to 2002.)

In governor's races, the Republican edge among middle-class voters helped explain several surprisingly easy victories. In Wisconsin, incumbent Republican Scott Walker increased his advantage among middle-income voters from 56-percent-44-percent in 2010 to 57-percent-42-percent in 2014. In Ohio, incumbent Republican John Kasich increased his edge among voters with college, but not postgrad, education from 59-percent-38-percent in 2010 to 64-percent-32-percent. In Illinois, a dependably blue state, the shift of middle-class voters was a key factor in Republican Bruce Rauner's win over incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn. Rauner won college-educated voters by 60 percent to 36 percent—a 12-point shift from Quinn's margin in 2010.

Powering this advantage: skepticism among middle-class voters about the value they get from their tax dollars.

[M]iddle-class voters have long been mistrustful of government. In a 2010 study based on the extensive General Social Survey conducted semiannually by the National Opinion Research Center, political sociologists Leslie McCall and Jeff Manza found that those with college but not postgrad degrees exhibited more marked opposition than any other educational grouping to government spending, and to policies that promised to redistribute income from the rich to the poor.

This skepticism has intensified in the age of Obama. Although the president’s rhetoric has targeted the wealthy few at the very top, his policies have hit hard against people in the middle and upper middle. The most careful study of the distributional effects of the Affordable Care Act, carried out by the Brookings Institution, finds that the benefits of Obamacare are concentrated upon the poorest 20 percent of the population. The upper 80 percent lose, with the biggest losses falling squarely upon the middle of the income distribution.

Distributional Effects of the Affordable Care Act

Whatever you call this, it’s not “middle-class economics.”

President Obama’s briefly mooted proposal to tax middle-class savings vehicles to finance free tuition at community colleges only ratified a perception that many middle-class Americans have developed: that this Democratic administration does not favor them. As Judis notes, this perception is shared by nonwhite as well as white middle-class voters.

According to a Pew study of the 2012 elections, Hispanic support for Obama was 13 percentage points lower among those with a college degree than among those without a college degree; and it was 23 points lower among those making more than $50,000 than among those making less than $50,000. (There is no comparable polling among Asian voters, but they are more likely to be college-educated and have higher incomes than other minorities—and than white voters. They recoiled against Romney in 2012, probably due to his anti-immigration rhetoric, but split their vote evenly in 2014 House races.)

The president’s ambitious redistributionist agenda has opened an opportunity for Republicans—an opportunity, but not a certainty. The Republican advantage described by Judis operates most potently in lower turnout years and in down-ballot races. In the highly publicized presidential contest, Republicans have not recovered from their post-1988 troubles. As badly as Mitt Romney lost in 2012—5 million votes!—it’s also true that his 47.15 percent showing was only a half a point worse than George W. Bush’s in 2000. In percentage terms Romney did better than George H.W. Bush in 1992, Bob Dole in 1996, and John McCain in 2008. Only once in those six presidential elections did a Republican surpass 50.1 percent of the vote: 2004. And that result was the weakest result ever received by an incumbent president who did not actually lose re-election. As a presidential party, the GOP remains a troubled franchise.

Yet Judis’s analysis suggests how the Republican Party might become fully competitive again. Since 2007, Republican politicians have been overwhelmed with advice about how to reinvent their party. Turn to the cultural right to win back Reagan Democrats! Legalize pot to woo Millennials! Immigration reform will attract Hispanics! Blast through resistance to the thrilling opportunities of a dynamic, entrepreneurial economy! These bold recommendations bump up against the near-universal experience of successful parties of the center-right in other advanced-economy democracies. Those parties base themselves squarely upon the interests and values of middle-class voters: people with families, jobs, and savings; people typically more anxious to preserve what they have than excited by grand visions of change. In 1957, the 81-year-old German conservative Konrad Adenauer won the greatest election victory in Germany’s democratic history on this slogan: “No experiments.” Voters who appreciate that promise are the voters parties of the center-right must gain and hold.

How? Look more closely at the election examples Judis cites. Middle-class Americans will vote for tough governors willing to stand up to special interests and to hold the line on costs and taxes. But when politicians stray into debates over which rapes are legitimate, they lead where middle-class America won’t follow. Instead:

1) Be a party for people of conservative temperament, even more than conservative ideology. Quit threatening to shut down the government, default on contracts, or blow up institutions. Don’t keep company with people who fantasize about deploying their basement arsenals to wage war on the government of the United States. “I’m a conservative, but I’m not a nut about it,” said the elder George H.W. Bush. Good advice then, good advice now.

2) Make their priorities your priorities. Heading into their 2005 election, British Conservatives were heartened that all their top policy positions polled high with the public. They lost badly anyway. Even voters who agreed with the Conservatives’ answers didn’t agree about the importance of their questions. Likewise, while many Americans may tell a pollster they are “pro-life,” that does not necessarily mean they want Congress to deal with abortion first and constantly.

3) Honor those who work for wages. Not everybody is cut out to run a business. Those who are do not constitute some superior stratum of humanity. The cult of the entrepreneur in the 2012 campaign excluded and often insulted tens of millions of Americans, who appreciate job creators—but who also insist on respect for their different kind of work and their different contribution.

4) Don’t merely accept the social-insurance state; welcome it. Even reasonably affluent Americans of the 2010s feel less secure than similarly situated people did half a century ago. Not just their jobs, but their entire industries, can vanish with a new invention or a shift in trade relations. Just as corporations will cheerfully pay to hedge risks, so too voters rationally wish to pay a reasonable cost to insure against unemployment, illness, or accident. That’s not mooching, and Republicans need to stop resenting it.

5) The party of aspiration can’t be the party of resentment. There are many people who feel left behind in the modern economy. Their feelings of being disregarded and disrespected demand attention. But the people whose votes could return the GOP to the White House are people who are succeeding—and are frustrated that their government doesn’t seem to do its job as well as they do theirs. They have practical problems they want solved, and they won’t trust for long a Sarah Palin style politician who only articulates grievances.

One last proposal, not drawn from the data, but a good idea all the same:

6) Remember the “peace” part of “peace through strength.” President Obama is leaving his successor an even more chaotic and dangerous planet than he inherited. Republicans will rightly slam him for this record—but their criticism will only resonate to the extent they convince Americans that they want to use that power to deter foreign aggressors, not to stumble into new adventures of their own. With candidates named Bush and Clinton seeking the presidency again, Americans will wonder whether they have drawn the right lesson from the Iraq war. That lesson isn’t “peace at any price” or “blame America first.” It’s “look before you leap.” That most middle class of philosophers, Adam Smith, listed prudence as one of his three supreme social virtues, along with justice and beneficence. Middle-class voters will feel the same way.

Studies of the mood of the middle class find a group whose keenest yearning is for greater security. Here’s National Journal in 2013:

Asked to define what it means to be middle class, a solid 54 percent majority of respondents picked “having the ability to keep up with expenses and hold a steady job while not falling behind or taking on too much debt.”

Half of college-educated middle-class people fear they might fall out of the middle class; two-thirds of non-college middle-class people express this fear. In his speech to the party's 2012 convention, Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan resoundingly condemned the Obama administration for speaking to Americans "as if everyone is stuck in some class or station in life, victims of circumstances beyond our control, with government there to help us cope with our fate.” But that’s precisely how middle-class people felt at the time! As the National Journal survey found, college-educated middle-class people were just as fearful that they might fall out of the middle class as they were hopeful that they might rise above it. Nor were these fears confined to recent entrants to the middle class, or to members of historically marginalized groups. In fact, black middle-class Americans were the most optimistic of any ethnic group, 80 percent of them looking forward to further improvements in their economic position. White members of the middle-class, Romney-Ryan’s most likely voters, were the most fearful.

Those voters don’t want a government handout. But they do want the assurance that government is “there to help them cope with their fate” in a crisis or emergency. They are seriously worried that they cannot save enough to educate their children, pay for their health needs, or enjoy retirement—all areas in which costs are swayed or outright-determined by government policy.

In their times of greatest success, Republicans came from the middle class. Republican politicians felt middle-class aspirations and anxieties as their own. They would do things that tangibly helped the people who sent them to office: hold taxes down, yes, but also ensure public safety, clean water, affordable state university tuition, and more. To fill the vacuum left by Barack Obama, Republicans will need to rediscover their heritage of the Nixon-Ford years, and of governors like New York’s Thomas Dewey and California’s Earl Warren.

Contemporary politicians, of both parties, tend to be much more expensively educated than their predecessors. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney accumulated four Ivy League degrees between the pair of them. If not wealthy when they enter office, leading politicians rapidly become wealthy after they leave. It’s been a long time since Harry Truman returned to the same house from which he came.

These new disparities in education and wealth isolate the leaders from those they lead. The middle class becomes a “them” and not an “us.” Isolation inspires leaders to hire consultants and focus groups to tell them what ordinary people feel, since they themselves don’t know and can’t guess. Isolation makes it easy not to listen—and to follow instead the urgings of the much richer donors with whom politicians nowadays spend so much time. That was how Republicans got into so much trouble in 2009-2012. If they’re to seize the opportunity vacated by Barack Obama in 2015, Republicans must find not only a new message, but a new way to decide what their message should be.