Class Is In Session-And Working Class Whites are Voting Democrat

“What’s the Matter with Kansas?” squealed liberal writer Thomas Frank. Answer: since the Civil War its almost always voted Republican. In fact, it’s usually one of the most GOP states in the Union. See for more.

Interwoven throughout Frank’s analysis is that poor and working class whites have abandoned the Democratic Party- or the Party has abandoned them for more upper class voters through the use of “social” issues like abortion. An interesting theory-especially given than rural and outer-suburban counties (even ones with low median incomes) tend to vote GOP while the stereotypically wealthier urban areas and closer suburbs tend to vote Democrat.

There’s just one problem with Frank’s theory that working class whites don’t vote Democrat and that Kerry’s windsurfing and “rich” personal tastes helped cost him the election: It’s totally wrong.

In a new study Princeton analyst Larry Bartels looks at how whites in the bottom third of the income scale (those whites making less than $35,000 a year in 2004) have voted over the last 5 decades. He also analyzes the voting trends among whites in the middle income third ($35,000-$70,000) and the upper third (over $70,000). Bartels does adjust his numbers for inflation. Bartels conclusions are as follows and can be seen here: Another View of Frank’s ‘Kansas’.

Has the white working class abandoned the Democratic Party? No. White voters in the bottom third of the income distribution have actually become more reliably Democratic in presidential elections over the past half-century, while middle- and upper-income white voters have trended Republican. Low-income whites have become less Democratic in their partisan identifications, but at a slower rate than more affluent whites – and that trend is entirely confined to the South, where Democratic identification was artificially inflated by the one-party system of the Jim Crow era.

Has the white working class become more conservative? No. The average views of low-income whites have remained virtually unchanged over the past 30 years. (A pro-choice shift on abortion in the 1970s and ‘80s has been partially reversed since the early 1990s.) Their positions relative to more affluent white voters – generally less liberal on social issues and less conservative on economic issues – have also remained virtually unchanged.

Do working class “moral values” trump economics? No. Social issues (including abortion) are less strongly related to party identification and presidential votes than economic issues are, and that is even more true for whites in the bottom third of the income distribution than for more affluent whites. Moreover, while social issue preferences have become more strongly related to presidential votes among middle- and high-income whites, there is no evidence of a corresponding trend among low-income whites.”

Affluent whites tend to be a little more liberal on social issues than middle income and lower income whites, while middle and lower income whites tend to be more liberal on economic issues. Of course given the fact that Kerry won voters from households making less than $50,000 (45% of voters but 60% of all households) by a margin of 55%-45% and won the under $50,000 vote in every blue and battleground state (save for Colorado and West Va.) none of this should be surprising. Now if we can just get these folks making less than $50,000 to turnout some more. Or get a few of them to join labor unions.

Bottom line: Contrary to media reports from Nov. 2004 to present day, this election was not lost among white voters in the bottom half of the income scale. While racial minorities played a big part in Kerry’s margins among the $50,000 and under crowd, the notion that middle and lower white folks are blinded by social issues (or couldn’t bear to vote for a windsurfer) are as bogus as the claims of the Swift Boat liars. Outside the South, Democrats are still the party of the working man (or woman) almost regardless of race, Hollywood and Berkeley Deaniacs notwithstanding.

Note: Get a good look at the charts on pages 40-43 on the Bartels study.

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About Nick

Teacher of Social Studies. Born in the 1970s. History major, music minor. Big Baseball fan. Economic progressive.
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6 Responses to Class Is In Session-And Working Class Whites are Voting Democrat

  1. lothario says:

    I read that analysis it was very interesting. It amazes and annoys me how the media talk about Kerry not connecting with the common man but his votes came directly from the working class. Its annoys me that you have Dems who repeat RW talking points of Kerry not connecting.

  2. NativeTexan4Kerry says:

    Interesting. I read the Kansas book… I’m not sure if I think Frank’s analysis was COMPLETELY wrong… but this brings up good points that I hadn’t thought of before. Main questions now is… what’s the SOLUTION? What should we do?

  3. Ginny in CO says:


    The more I see these numbers, the more I think***electronic voting machines***

    Lothario, my daughter and I were talking today – actually started with NT4K moving to Mass- about people not realizing how much difference there is between Texas Democrats, Massachusetts Dems. etc. Even the new Dem Gov of Montana was trying to promote his successful campaign as the way to win the votes and that Kerry didn’t connect because he gives too complex an answer to the questions. We keep repeating the “Dems need to stop trashing and attacking our own ” refrain to the deaf and …..

    Which brings me to echo NT4K, what the heck do we DO to change the dialogue and get the people who are likely to change their minds to pay attention.

    I think Kerry is doing a great job of keeping his name, face and ideas in the media. More exposure over more time will be a form of repetition, more familiarity, etc.
    That loses a lot of effectiveness as long as we have our own misinformed, emotional idealogues continuing their attacks on him and other Dems. (glad to have another choir member 🙂

    I think Lakoff has gotten too much emphasis on this, not that his ideas aren’t useful.
    One of the things I think we could rephrase is that we promote is: Intentional and Responsible CONCEPTION. “Birth control” is a misnomer. It is conception control.
    At this point, according to the Bio class my daughter took recently, there are 18 ways to conceive!!! Using some of them has as much potential for irresponsible conception as not using prevention.
    I like Paul Hacket’s simple “Abortion should be safe, legal and RARE” It does not address the need for more education and options beyond “Just say No”. It does not address the need for putting a lot of careful thought, preparation and planning before even a married couple conceives.

    I think the people who didn’t vote their economic interests were probably swayed by the War and some other issues. The status of the economy, war and other problems is going to change what they are going to hear.. listen for etc.

  4. Ginny,

    “I like Paul Hacket’s simple “Abortion should be safe, legal and RARE””

    I like that too. Especially because I’ve heard it before from both JK and Bill:

    There’s some interesting articles referenced Googling the quote + John Kerry.

  5. Ginny in CO says:


    Sometimes, as much as I join the fuss about uninformed voters, I discover stuff I either hadn’t heard or forgot. I think I never heard the comment from Clinton or Kerry.
    What really surprises me is the statistics from the Herald. The most recent polls show support for legalized abortion at about 65%.

    Anyway, I think every time it comes up, or before – Dems should talk about more education and preparation for planned conception, rather than leaving the issue to whether it can be terminated. What really ticks me off is not just the holier than thou attitude that if you had sex and got pregnant, you must have the child ( regardless of your religious beliefs). It is the additional underfunding of preventative health care, sex education, etc. resulting in too many unplanned pregnancies that lead to more difficult lives for all concerned. What we have is more unstable families and all the associated problems.

    Since I’m off topic, a few statistics:

    2002: 12.1% of live births were premature. About 500,000
    2001 : 1,200,000 abortions, unrelated to fetal or maternal health,rape or incest.
    2003 : 4,089,950 live births

    WHY are there that many unintended pregnancies? That’s not even 1/2 of them.
    Before implantation, miscarriage may be as high as 50%
    From implantation to day 34 (before clinically recognized) 30%
    from day 35 to 50 25%
    If you project the # of conceptions, before miscarriages, it’s around 10 million.
    This is where I really wonder what people are thinking when they talk about intelligent design. What is God’s mysterious plan to naturally cancel half the conceptions? (Scientists think the DNA combination is so tricky that most of these are due to the development getting to the point that something is missing or not functioning, causing the fetus to die)

    Instead of covertly judging sex as bad, (so is war) maybe we could just accept that sex happens and promote more responsible actions to prevent unintended conception. There must be a few dollars we could “borrow” from the pork budget.

    If we were to add over 1 million children per year to our population, what would happen to these #s?:

    Health Insurance
    2004 4 million children in SCHIP (State programs for children not eligible for Mcaid)
    1 in 5 were in Medicaid
    Schip and Medicaid are generally UNDERinsured programs – they do not
    provide enough coverage to pay for many basic health care needs
    2003 8.4 million were UNinsured. Nada
    2003 17.6% or 12.9 Million were living in poverty.

    Democrats are pretty united on the need to provide more for these kids and the ones that are better off as well, Health care, food, education. A future.

    I think we can find ways to communicate the values and ideas to convince more voters to want a Democratic Controlled Congress,

  6. Nick says:


    First acknowledge where Dems are already doing well. That gives a base to start from.
    Second, as far as more middle-class whites are concerned, dems should stress how “from the ground-up” economics benefits them as well as the poor while “trickle down” economics of the GOP doesn’t really trickle all that much. I started to say “bubble up” economics but that might remind too many folks of money lost in the stock market after the “bubble” of the 1990s burst (boy did it burst).
    The middle third of the income scale ($35,000-$70,000 annual household income) are always somewhat problematic because once you get above the $50,000 threshold, your talking about folks in the top 40% of incomes and the second quintile tends to identify more with the rich that they wanna be than the middle class that they still are.
    Good news: Kerry won 51% of voters from the $30,000-$50,000 income quintile a better % than Clinton or Gore.
    bad news: turnout was up bigtime in the red states not in the blue ones.
    Democrats need to get better at turning out these voters in the blue states. Dems should also work to make sure at least 25% of voters come from union households. In 2000 26% came from union households, in 2004 it was just 24%. Kerry won 65% of the union household vote, more than any Democrat since 1964.
    Bottom line: We need more unionized workers. They get low income workers into the $30,000-$50,000 range, and they get their people out to vote. The problem is that while unions made up 25% of the workforce in 1979, they only make up 12.5% of the workforce today. More unions=more dem voters.

    See the article “Democrats should Look for the Union Label” for more input on this topic.