Missing White Voters: Why Do We Care?

I don’t know if anyone reads what I write or can even find this blog.  For someone who blogs anonymously, that is both a blessing and a curse:  I don’t want to write things that can be attributed to me directly, especially when I am offering thoughts about something as incendiary as electoral politics.  At the same time, however, I do want my writing to be read and influence how people think about things.

At any rate, I have been following the candidacies of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders–and the befuddled commentary accompanying their candidacies from all quarters–with utmost fascination.  Let me be clear that I believe both their candidacies present a thrilling challenge to the ossified and dysfunctional political institutions of United States and the unimaginative political class that has come to accept the status quo as God-given “normal” order of things by exposing the numerous  internal contradictions, dissatisfaction, and various other pent up stresses within the present state of things.  Unfortunately, precisely because they do not fit neatly into the present status quo accepted by the commentariat as the natural state of the universe, no one seems to make out what they are, where they come from, and what they portend for politics in United States.  I am hoping to write a few posts explaining my thoughts, in the hope that I will help some people somewhere make better sense of the politics currently unfolding in 2016.

The term “missing white voters” was coined by Sean Trende in an article published online in 2012, in the aftermath of the 2012 election.  However, it was not necessarily a brand new concept:  it was an idea that drew much attention from political scientists, albeit in a slightly different context between 1970s and 1990s, only to be forgotten in 2000s.  The context where they drew attention was the phenomenon first observed in 1970s where a large chunk of the American electorate, especially among the working class white voters in much of the Midwest and the South, seemed to lose connection to their so-called party identification.  The research conducted during 1950s and 60s indicated that voters develop attachment to parties on the basis of their family and social ties early in life and retain it throughout their life barring major political changes of historical proportions–say, the Civil War.  During 1970s, large chunks of voters, without facing such a major crisis, simply lost their partisanship.  Dealignment, as this phenomenon came to be termed, furnished much of the motivation for Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” and, later, Ronald Reagan’s electoral success riding on a wave of so-called “Reagan Democrats.”

The term “Reagan Democrats” underscores the paradoxical nature of this segment of the electorate:  they voted for Reagan and later, to a large degree, George H. W. Bush.  Yet, they remained faithful to the Democratic Party down the ballot.  As much as they furnished the margin of the Reagan landslide in 1984, they furnished the Democratic Congressional landslide of 1986.  Misguided focus on the presidential election loses the sight of the latter half of their electoral role.   Of course, their split partisan identity indicated by their vote choices also serves to underscore the extent of their partisan dealignment.

As partisan attachment was dealigning through 1970s, 80s, and 90s, another phenomenon was drawing attention:  a precipitous decline in turnout.  In 1968, turnout stood at 60.8%.  After 1972, it stayed in lower half of 50’s, until it hit the low of 49.1% in 1996.  In retrospect, much of the lower turnout was attributable to the precipitous decline in turnout among the working class white voters, but this line of investigation did not gain much traction.  For what it is worth, overall turnout rebounded in 2000’s and who was not voting did not receive a great deal of attention.

Yet, the rebound in turnout in 2000s was not driven by the return of the white working class to the polling place en masse.  Some groups, partly overlapping with the white working class, did increase their turnout a great deal:  the voters who happen to be engaged in some form of social network, such as churches (e.g. those who “bowled together” to paraphrase Robert Putnam), as did formerly disaffected subsets of voters such as African Americans–especially those who were socially engaged, such as regular church attendees.  But most of the white working class who went missing did not return to the polling place.  In the 2012 election, the turnout among the whites without college degrees was only 57%, according to fivethirtyeight.com, compared to 77% for whites with college degrees and 66% for African-Americans.

The absence of the white working class is significant because those who did remain voting have significantly shifted their allegiance from 1980s.  As of 2012, 62% of whites without college degrees voted for Republican Mitt Romney.  This apparently led to a widespread belief among Republican strategists that, if their turnout can somehow be raised, they would provide a large electoral boon for the Republicans.  They are not wrong to suggest this:  they are numerous in so-called battleground states where both Republicans and Democrats are competitive, across much of the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Upper South–Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Missouri, etc. Essentially, the Rust Belt plus Upper South.  If they significantly increase their turnout while making the same choice, they can flip the presidential election in favor of the Republicans.  In fact, because of the geographic distribution of different groups of voters, mobilizing these “missing white voters” represents the ONLY realistic means through which the Republicans can win the presidency in the near future.

This line of thinking, however, ignores a critical problem.  There is a good reason that these voters are “missing” in the first place.  An old truism in political science holds that voting is irrational.  However small the extent of inconvenience might be, the act of voting IS a costly activity.  The value that a voter obtains from voting is also minuscule:  there is no chance that without the voter’s one vote, the result of the election would change.  The only reason that a voter would be voting, then, is the good feeling that he or she contributed to a good cause, or at least prevented a bad one.  Perhaps voting itself, as fulfillment of civic duty is a sufficiently good cause.  But will voting always be a good enough cause, even when all that you achieved is to put Turd Sandwich over Giant Douche? (to borrow the example from South Park).  It may be that, if only because there are so many of them, the working class whites represent the mainstay of the electoral support for the Republicans today.  This is by no means an indication that their support is enthusiastic. Many working class whites are not libertarians.  They are interested in preserving government services.  In fact, they are deeply invested in protecting and even expanding Social Security and Medicare.  They do not care for cutting taxes or the size of government.  Almost every aspect of the Republican Party economic policy positions is diametrically opposed to their interests.  Tom Frank asked some years ago “What is the Matter with Kansas,” or why so many of these people were seemingly voting for a party whose goals are diametrically opposed to them.  It appears that, more recently, Frank has found his answer, but a more trenchant, emphatic, and biased version of why can be found here.  The short version is that they have no choice:  they were abandoned by the Democratic Party. While they may vote for the Republicans more than they do for the Democrats, the lack of enthusiasm in their support translates to the low turnout.

For both Democrats and Republicans, then, they represent the mixture of an opportunity, a challenge, a problem, and something to ignore.  They do not naturally belong to either party:  they distrust both and, at the same time, under a right set of conditions, might swing their votes in favor of either.  They can enable either party to expand their electorate substantially in strategic states provided that the party can gain their trust.  The challenge comes from the fact that there are good reasons that they should distrust them both.  The Democrats abandoned them as being too much trouble for their electoral value. While the Republicans are happy to rely on them for their votes, they are not being given a fair shake.  What assurances can either offer that they are not simply being exploited?  The problem comes from the fact that there are good coalitional reasons in both Democratic and Republican Parties that they were abandoned in the first place:  there are other, more “important” coalitional partners in both parties who are more valuable to the party leaders.  Ultimately, the party insiders are content, if not altogether happy to ignore them because, for their electoral needs, the “missing white votes” are not really necessary.  My plan is to explore the missing white voters in greater depth and address these questions.  In turn, my answers will elucidate the problems of the inner workings of the American parties (and indeed, political parties elsewhere) that has led to the problem of underserved voters and how they led to the insurgent candidacies of Sanders and Trump, the two outsiders who are threatening to bring “their” parties electoral victories that they do not want at the price of subverting their incumbent leaderships.  I am not optimistic that either effort will succeed–indeed, as I will explain later, I think the beginning of the end has already begun for both given the results of the Nevada Caucuses South Carolina Primaries.  Yet, the coalitional problems remain even as the current symptoms may have been stopped.  Understanding the present challenges and their root causes is critical for the crisis will return soon if their roots are not understood and properly remedied.



2 thoughts on “Missing White Voters: Why Do We Care?

  1. Jane May 23, 2016 / 11:51 pm

    Hi there! This blog post couldn’t be written any better!
    Reading through this post reminds me of my previous roommate!

    He constantly kept talking about this. I am going to send this post to him.
    Pretty sure he’s going to have a great read. I appreciate
    you for sharing!


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