Debate challenge: Connecting with the misunderstood white working-class

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in Manhattanon Sept. 25, 2012. (Photo by … Continued

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in Manhattanon Sept. 25, 2012. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post) President Obama delivers remarks at a campaign event at Farm Bureau Live in Virginia Beach, Va. on Sept. 27, 2012. (Photo by: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Both President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney will be arriving at the presidential debate podiums with the mud still drying on their shoes from hard campaigning in Ohio and Colorado. In each of these and other battleground states, the candidates will be making their cases with particular attention to white working-class voters.

As much analysis this election cycle has shown, the national polling numbers often hide significant regional or state-level differences. One of the most striking findings from Public Religion Research Institute’s recent Race, Class, and Culture Survey was that Romney’s considerable lead over Obama among white working-class voters was almost entirely due to an outside lead in one region of the country, the enduringly conservative South (62 percent vs. 22 percent). In the remaining regions of the country, white working-class voters were fairly evenly divided: West (46 percent Romney vs. 41 percent Obama), Northeast (42 percent Romney vs. 38 percent Obama), and Midwest (36 percent Romney vs. 44 percent Obama).

In key states such as Ohio and Colorado, white working-class voters are critical. In 2008, non-college educated white voters made up half (50 percent) of the electorate in Ohio, and McCain won them 54 percent to 44 percent. In Colorado, non-college educated white voters comprised about one-third (23 percent) of the electorate, and McCain won them 57 percent to 42 percent.

Both candidates are heading into the debates with less than perfect records when it comes to white working-class voters. In 2008, Obama suggested that some rural voters are “bitter” and “cling to guns or religion or to antipathy to people who aren’t like them” —a comment for which he later apologized and called “my biggest boneheaded move.” More recently, with a comment that has caused something of a media firestorm, Romney asserted that 47 percent of the country “pay no income tax” and see themselves as “victims” who “believe the government has a responsibility to care for them.” Romney also drew a conclusion that has been following his campaign: “And so my job is not to worry about those people—I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”


View Photo Gallery: Moments when faith and politics intersect during the 2012 campaign.

Fresh from their tours of Ohio and Colorado, both Romney and Obama have their work cut out for them in battleground states with this group, which constitutes more than one-third (36 percent) of all Americans. Specifically, they will need to sidestep two common stereotypes about white working-class Americans. Both Obama and Romney would do well to avoid these prevailing myths, not just because it is bad politics, but also because these stereotypes are not true.


Myth 1
: White working-class Americans are animated by culture war issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Contrary to some conventional wisdom prevalent in more liberal circles, white working-class Americans are not primarily politically animated by social issues like abortion or same-sex marriage. A majority (53 percent) of white working-class Americans say the economy is the most important issue for their vote this year, while only 1-in-20 say the same of either abortion (3 percent) or same-sex marriage (2 percent). Rather than manning the barricades on these issues, they are in fact divided: half (50 percent) say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 45 percent say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Similarly, although half (50 percent) of white working-class Americans oppose same-sex marriage, a substantial minority (43 percent) are in favor.


Myth 2
. White working-class Americans see themselves as victims and have abandoned traditional religiosity and a strong work ethics. With a thesis that echoed Romney’s recent comments, conservative sociologist
Charles Murray argued that the heart of problems faced by white working-class Americans were there erosion of cultural capital, specifically that they were abandoning traditional values, becoming less religious and less hard-working over time. But PRRI survey’s findings refute this notion: white working-class Americans are no less likely to attend religious services than Americans overall (48 percent vs. 50 percent attend at least once a month), and are no less likely to report that religion is important in their lives (60 percent vs. 59 percent). White working-class Americans are also not passively waiting to receive government handouts but are working hard, average significantly more hours of work per week than white college-educated Americans (51 vs. 46).

There are a few straightforward things that both candidates would do well to address in the debate. It is true that white working-class Americans are frustrated, especially about the slow economic recovery. It is also true that white working-class Americans perceive the deck to be stacked against them, as they are simultaneously working harder and struggling more financially than their college-educated counterparts. And it’s true that, compared to the communities white college-educated Americans call home, white working-class Americans are experiencing much higher levels of joblessness, lack of opportunities for young people, home foreclosures, and lack of funding for good schools. The task for the candidates in this first debate is to move past the stereotypes and address these issues with respect and empathy.

Robert P. Jones
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  • Fullofpassion223

    why is it that this nation is always worried about the white working class, whenever you put up barriers like that it shows how truly divided this nation is….. each race has a “agenda” that pertains to their own race, are we not a nation of togetherness? or are we a nation troubled by our own self interest….. of course there are big issues like the economy and abortion but these self interests were the reason for this economic downfall how many people are going to have to be divided then outcast-ed for people to start understanding these WHITE WORKING CLASS should just be aimed TOWARDS THE AMERICAN MELTING POT CLASS because no one race is superior or inferior to the other…. The days of Adolf Hitler are over ……….lets work together in harmony…. if all races work together who is there left to fight? No one!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11

  • SODDI

    Does Romney understand that a lot of those white working class voters have ended up in the 47% – not by any choice of their own, but just by living in a country where has been nothing but bad luck for the 99% of Americans who are investment millionaires?

    Whole chunks of this country have been in that 47% for decades now.

  • SODDI

    Who are NOT investment millionaires.

  • allamer1

    FullOf, “this nation is always worried about the white working class”? Are you kidding? The white working class is never PC in anybody’s opinion. They are more likely to be denigrated and marginalized in any public commentary. Look at the title of this article.

  • TB_One

    Identifying Americans by race for the purposes of drawing generalizations is a funciton of statistical marketing research for the purpose of selling a candidate, a platform or political party. Elections are about marketing. Think about it. What has either candidate provided in terms of hard facts regarding plans to improve unemployment; reducing government; actually addressing how government is funded and how to measure and improve productivity?

    Make no mistake racism is alive and well in the U.S. We hear all the time from the NAACP and other minorities how they are discriminated against. But interestingly these same minority organizations embrace affirmative action which by definition is descrimination for a minority against another race. You’ll hear no cry against all black schools, fraternaties, congressional black caucus, United Negro College Fund, Black Miss America, all black magazines, majority black professional teams and yet you’ll hear plenty of complaints that there are not enough black coaches. Marion Barry is the poster child of racism calling for forcing out the Korean minority businesses in favor of black owned business.

  • beowulf3

    Interesting task. Up by the bootstraps. You first.

  • pepawjoe

    What’s apparrently is happening here has “ABSOLUTELY NOTHING” to do with America or the People. It’s ALL ABOUT “WINNING”, PERIOD!
    Barrack Obama has done “MORE” to “DRAG THIS COUNTRY AND IT’S PEOPLE” to IT’S LOWEST LEVELS in Modern Years. Along the way, “MANY” well respected Men and Women have been simply discared themselves by their “ILL-FATED” Failures to respect and serve the American People.
    Money, WINNING has been INDUCED into these one-time Great Americans.
    The People and American Values have been cast aside for America.
    The Wealthy and Corporate Individuals have “REPLACED” the Goals and Directions of Government. “We, the People” is Today a Remark of written “USE TO BE’S” in America. Corporate requirements has the Elected Bodies of Government “HOG-TIED” with their treats and MONEY.
    Our Elected Individuals being “BOUGHT” for their SUPPORT now and FUTURE Growths.
    Instead of taking their rightful places to thank and reward America for their feats and actions, The Rich and Corporate Worlds have assumed “NEAR TOTAL CONTROL OF AMERICA’S GOVERNMENT”. “We, the People” share what “INK” was used to print the “REAL AMERICA WE LIVE IN TODAY”. “AND NOTHING ELSE”, when our Government is SUPPOSED to be LISTENING to OUR PEOPLE, BUT DON’T!

  • ccnl1

    Romney won the debate but he will not win the election. Why?

    Only for new members of this blog:-–>>

    Why the Christian Right no longer matter in presidential elections:

    Once again, all the conservative votes in the country “ain’t” going to help a “pro-life” presidential candidate, i.e Mitt Romney, in 2012 as the “Immoral Majority” rules the country and will be doing so for awhile. The “Immoral Majority” you ask?

    The fastest growing USA voting bloc: In 2008, the 70+ million “Roe vs. Wade mothers and fathers” of aborted womb-babies” whose ranks grow by two million per year i.e. 78+ million “IM” voters in 2012.

    2008 Presidential popular vote results:

    69,456,897 for pro-abortion/choice BO, 59,934,814 for “pro-life” JM.

    And the irony:

    And all because many women fail to take the Pill once a day or men fail to use a condom even though in most cases these men have them in their pockets. (maybe they should be called the “Stupid Majority”?)

    The failures of the widely used birth “control” methods i.e. the Pill and male condom have led to the large rate of abortions ( one million/yr) and S-TDs (19 million/yr) in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or condoms properly and/or use other safer birth control methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.

  • OldUncleTom

    This Jones character sure seems to have a fixation on “whiteness” here. I’d like to know how other working class groups break down by these same criteria. I’m willing to bet there isn’t that much difference.

    One difference I have seen over the years from personal witness: working class whites often feel like victims of minority preference programs like affirmative action. I’ve been watching for over 40 years now, and I have yet to see it.

    Perhaps the scales have always been tilted their way before, so equal opportunity looks prejudiced to them. I know a few conservatives that are so tilted all the time that vertical looks left to them, too.

  • persiflage

    Roe v Wade rules the day – is that the message?? Talk to the Supreme Court……they also supported healthcare reform by a majority.

    BTW, MItt Romney was pro-choice before he was ‘pro-life’……just like he was for healthcare reform before he was against it – although he now claims to be for it as of last nite. Romney is for everyone and no one – if that will win the election.

  • ccnl1

    from a guy who enjoys intelligent se-x-

    Note: Some words hyphenated to defeat an obvious word filter. …

    The Brutal Effects of Stupidity:

    : The failures of the widely used birth “control” methods i.e. the Pill ( 8.7% failure rate) and male con-dom (17.4% failure rate) have led to the large rate of abortions and S-TDs in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or co-ndoms properly and/or use safer methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.- Failure rate statistics provided by the Gut-tmacher Inst-itute. Unfortunately they do not give the statistics for doubling up i.e. using a combination of the Pill and a condom.

    Added information before making your next move:

    from the CDC-2006

    “Se-xually transmitted diseases (STDs) remain a major public health challenge in the United States. While substantial progress has been made in preventing, diagnosing, and treating certain S-TDs in recent years, CDC estimates that approximately 19 million new infections occur each year, almost half of them among young people ages 15 to 24.1 In addition to the physical and psy-ch-ological consequences of S-TDs, these diseases also exact a tremendous economic toll. Direct medical costs as-sociated with STDs in the United States are estimated at up to $14.7 billion annually in 2006 dollars.”

    And from:

    Consumer Reports, January, 2012

    “Yes, or-al se-x is se-x, and it can boost cancer risk-

    Here’s a crucial message for teens (and all se-xually active “post-teeners”: Or-al se-x carries many of the same risks as va-ginal se-x, including human papilloma virus, or HPV. And HPV may now be overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of or-al cancers in America in people under age 50.

    “Adolescents don’t think or-al se-x is something to worry about,” said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. “They view it as a way to have intimacy without having ‘s-ex.’” (It should be called the Bill Clint

  • KentL1

    non-college educated white voters = working class
    non-educated non-white voters = ??
    college-educated voters = non-working class ?

    It might seem like harping on their non-collegeness, but it is that which puts them into a lower paid “class” income-wise. It sure isn’t their “whiteness”.

    Thus, the term “working class” is more tactful than “non-college-educated”, and it may seem more respectful, but is less helpful because it veils the truth. It also fuels anti-intellectualism — the attitude that those who went to college don’t really “work”..

    Ther’s probably a better term than working class.
    There are important “classes” missed here too — the “working poor” with no finacial assets and the “paycheck-to-paycheck middle class” with perilously little financial fall back.

    And incidentally, it is OK to refer to the “middle class”, and now a “working class” determined by ieducation = money,, but don’t dare say ” “high class”, “upper class” or “lower class”… what does that say about our honesty in regards to being a classless society? That we have a class system based on money that we won’t cop to..

    I’m for respecting the dignity of all classes, high middle, upper, lower, whether they’re working, sleeping on the job, doing nothing by living off the taxpayer or by being a rich heir to a billion dollar fortune. However, there is gray area between speaking respectfully and tyrning a blind eye. I don’t see the point in disguising the deciding factor of what puts a person into a certain class, but at least the term “working class” was defined here, if ionly by inference.

  • KentL1

    Yes. Why was Romney’s secret video joke about being better off if he were Latino supposed to be funny? To what prejudice does it appeal? It wasn’t funny because it was to be taken as hilariously preposterous, like claiming to have flown on a pig.
    It was funny because it expressed a taboo idea, one that polite people won’t say: Undeserving non-whites are stealing the jobs, stealing the power., stealing the money, stealing the services.
    And that’s who Romney appeals to: ‘victimized’ whites, ‘punished’ white millionaires, ‘persecuted’ white Christians.
    All he has to is be white. And drop the occasional innuendo or
    ‘joke’.

    It is not their whiteness that is keeping non-college-educated (“working class”?!) ‘white’ voters in a lower income bracket.
    Back in the old days, long before affirmative action, white men were passed over for promotions do other kinds of affirmative action — cronyism and nepotism. The son-in-law, the son, the golf buddy’s nephew, the mayor’s cousin, all were in line for promotion before better qualified, equally white men. And of course they were overwhelmingly men.

    It seems many pale-skinned Americans believe that if all otherly hued persons disappeared from America everyone would get the jobs the want and the promotions they deserve. They want to return to a never-time when all white people enjoyed equal opportunity. In that regard, they do feel victimized by darker colored competition.

    I do agree with the general premise of the writer that all non-college-educated pale-skinned voters are intolerant irrational religious fanatics who must be pandered to.