Poll: Outside the South, Obama’s Doing Well With the “White Working Class”

Supporters listen as US President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign event at the Henry Maier Festival in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, September 22, 2012. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages) Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages

Via John Sides (read him, every day), this new study from the Public Religion Research Institute does a lot to correct some lazy ideas about the “white working class” vote. We all know that the Obama campaign has abandoned those people, and they’ve abandoned him. Right? Right?

Not quite.

In mid-August, Romney held a commanding 40-point lead over Obama among white working-class voters in the South (62% vs. 22%). However, neither candidate held a statistically significant lead among white working-class voters in the West (46% Romney vs. 41% Obama), Northeast (42% Romney vs. 38% Obama), or the Midwest (36% Romney vs. 44% Obama).

National polls don’t tell us the whole story about white voters. Outside the South, since 2008, the white working class has edged away from the Democratic Party. But it remains open to the Democrats. That’s why the rest of the country’s so competitive! Take the example of Minnesota, where 90 percent of the 2008 electorate was white. Barack Obama split that vote, 49-49, with John McCain. He narrowly lost whites between the ages of 30 and 44, but won all other ages, and won elderly whites by a 17-point landslide.

Compare that to Georgia, where Obama did better than any Democrat since 1996. He won a measly 23 percent of the white vote. He lost elderly whites, aged 65 and over, by 56 points.

This might be obvious, but I think it gets lost in our daily culture war dialogues. To win the election in a squeaker, Barack Obama needs to win around 39 percent of the white vote. But outside the South, if he’s winning, he’ll be basically tying Romney with whites or losing them by 2-5 points. He’s the first Democrat to win national elections in the post-Dixiecrat era. For generations, the Democratic attitudes of the South made it easier for the party to hold Congress, even as ticket-splitters were voting Republican for president – Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes. Now it’s reversed. A Democrat can lose the deep South in a landslide, but win the presidency, as southern conservatives send a massive crop of Republicans back to the Capitol.