Capturing the Middle-Class Vote

We all know what happened last November: Democrats captured control of the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. Now we have some intriguing analysis on why it happened.

Democrats won because they dramatically improved their showing among groups that traditionally vote Republican (whites, men, married couples, rural voters and middle-class voters) according to a study just released by the centralist Democratic think tank ThirdWay entitled “Looking Red, Voting Blue: An Analysis of the 2006 Election.”

Democrats in recent elections have been getting killed among white middle-class voters, particularly among male voters. The tables turned significantly last fall. ThirdWay attributed this turnaround to discontent about the Iraq war and corruption rather than economic “class warfare” rhetoric often employed by national Democrats.

It’s interesting to review in detail ThirdWay’s study, which was based on national exit poll data of more than 13,000 voters in 2004 and 2006. This admittedly is a snapshot of a single moment in time. The key for Democrats will be their ability in 2008 to build on the gains made in 2006.

Let’s set the scene before we delve into the numbers. Democrats for years have been piling up big majorities among black voters and have been carrying the Hispanic vote. It has been the white vote that has sunk the Democratic Party. That’s why gains among whites were so important in 2006.

ThirdWay also did a study in June 2005 that showed that in the 2004 elections, congressional Democrats lost white middle-income voters by 19 points. "Middle class" was defined as between $30,000 and $75,000 in household income. According to ThirdWay, congressional Democrats in 2006 closed the gap among white middle-class voters to only a 5.8 percent loss.

ThirdWay calculated what it called the white “economic tipping point,” the household income at which a white person was more likely to vote for a Republican. According to the study, that “economic tipping point” increased from $23,700 in 2004 to $40,300 in 2006. Even this higher figure remained below the median household income of all white voters ($65,200).

ThirdWay analyzed the data by some other very interesting subgroups, dealing with gender, marital status and residence in a rural area (for each of these subgroups voters of all races were grouped together).

The report noted, “In previous elections, the movement of married Americans away from Democrats was one of the most profound tidal shifts in the electorate. The 2006 election saw a sea change in the other direction. The gender and marriage gaps narrowed significantly, with Democrats turning an 8.8-point loss among men in 2004 to 3.4-point victory two years later. Democrats narrowed a 13.2-point deficit among married voters in 2004 to a 3.4-point deficit.”

Further, according to the study, “in 2004, Republicans won rural America by 13 points; in 2006, their advantage dwindled to 2.8 points.”

So what does all this mean?

It could indicate that Democrats parlayed President Bush’s high disapproval numbers over his conduct of the Iraq war and public revulsion at the congressional page scandal into stunning one-time victory.

The key for Democrats is to keep doing well among groups that had turned their back on the party in recent years. They don’t have to carry the middle-class white vote or the vote of married couples; they just have to keep it close, something that previously only counted in horseshoes and hand grenades.

In order to keep it close among these and other similar groups in 2008, the Democratic Party will have to field presidential and congressional candidates who don’t scare the pants off the American public. They won’t have Bush to kick around in 2008 (some would, however, argue that he will be gone but not totally forgotten).

It will be important that the Democratic Party adopt economic and national security positions that will make it a habit for middle-class, married white voters to see Democrats as being on their side on the key issues of the day. This must be done without walking away from the concerns of blacks and Hispanics who have been loyal to the party through thick and thin.

Democrats have a foundation to build on for 2008. The fight to be the majority party once again is just beginning.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

Respond to the Writer