Are white working-class blues bad for Democrats?

DALLAS (Reuters) - White working-class males have been among the biggest U.S. losers in this recession. Does that mean that President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party will be the big loser in the 2010 congressional elections?

A man carrying a stack of job listings listens to a discussion at the One Stop employment center in San Francisco, California, August 12, 2009. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

Some analysts say yes, even though blue-collar white males have been leaning Republican for decades and have been a shrinking percentage of the U.S. electorate.

But they still represent as much as 15 percent of the voting age population and in industrial Midwest states their mounting economic woes could prove to be the difference in tight congressional races. Their economic frustration also is seen feeding into conservative opposition to Obama’s agenda.

The Democrats control both houses of congress and Obama won the White House race last year largely because of the sour economy and financial crisis. The 2010 elections will be seen as a referendum of Obama’s economic policies.

“The Democrats are likely to face a difficult election cycle in 2010 and losing ground with a significant portion of the electorate -- white working-class men -- will make it even more difficult,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“I think that in the industrial Midwest there are 10 to 15 new Democratic seats -- in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio -- that a cycle or two ago were Republican that the Democrats will struggle to keep this time round,” he said.

The devil is in the labor market details.

The male unemployment rate rose to 11 percent in September from 6.8 percent in the same month last year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor. The overall rate has gone to 9.8 percent from 6.2 percent over the same 12 months.

For white men over the age of 20 unemployment has almost doubled over that period to 9.6 percent from 5.5 percent. The unemployment rate for African American males in the same age group is up to 16.5 percent but blacks in general remain a key Democratic base.

The unemployment rates for high school dropouts and those with just a high school diploma are also far higher than those for college graduates. The working class in America is typically defined as workers without college degrees.

This is a group that has seen its wages stagnate and decline over the past three decades as manufacturing jobs have gone overseas and union membership has fallen.

In the current recession, millions more have been cast out of work -- especially in sectors such as construction and manufacturing -- and many of those assembly line jobs are just not coming back.

According to Andrew Sum, a labor economics professor at Northeastern University in Boston, the percentage of the unemployed who said in July, August and September of this year that their job loss was permanent was 54. That compares with 36 percent who said the same thing in the last quarter of 2007 when the recession began.

“You understand why people are anxious because they have no job to go back to,” he said.


White working-class males have been turning their backs on the Democratic Party for decades -- a perplexing situation in the eyes of some as a vote for the pro-business Republican Party is seen as a vote against their economic interests.

But especially in the U.S. heartland, the white working class has been won over by Republican appeals to patriotism, God and guns, areas where liberals are regarded suspiciously.

According to Scott Keeter of the Pew Research Center, losing Republican presidential candidate John McCain continued that trend and beat Obama by a wide gap of 59 percent to 39 percent among working-class white males.

Obama’s approval rating with working-class white males is around 40 percent according to the latest Pew poll.

Democratic strategists might take heart in the demographics of this group which is a shrinking base.

“In our surveys in 1994, 22 percent of the people we interviewed were working-class white men and this year that number is 15 percent,” said Keeter.

Still, it remains a significant chunk of the electorate and their anxieties are seen in part driving the conservative opposition to Obama’s fiscal policies and his push to reform the U.S. healthcare system, his top domestic priority.

The protesters at town hall meetings and those who have taken part in “Tea Party” protests against government spending have been overwhelmingly white, and analysts say many are no doubt working-class males insecure about their future.

“Certainly economic anxiety has got to be a big part of this. You have a lot of people whose grip on a middle-class life is much more tenuous than it was even a couple of years ago,” said Keeter.

Other analysts echoed this view, noting that many white working-class males believe they are worse off than their parents were.

“Many have lost jobs and working-class white men have difficulty doing things they saw their fathers do which they cannot do and so it is easy to go swing sign at a Tea Party,” said Jillson.

Editing by Mohammad Zargham