The truth is that the most important factor shaping the 2008 election will almost certainly be the same one that has been the most important in presidential elections for the past 40 years: the flight of white male voters away from the Democratic Party.
The hostility of this group to Democrats and their perceived values is so pervasive that even many people who make their living in politics scarcely remark on it. But it is the main reason the election 13 months from now is virtually certain to be close—even though on issues from the war to health care, Democrats likely will be competing with more favorable tail winds than they have enjoyed for years.
The “gender gap” has been a fixture in discussions about American politics since the early Reagan years. But it is usually cast as a matter of women being turned off by Republicans. By far the greater part of this gap, however, comes from the high number of white men—who make up about 36 percent of the electorate—who refuse to even consider voting Democratic.
In 2000, exit polling showed white women backed George W. Bush over Al Gore by 3 percentage points, but white men backed him by 27 percentage points. Four years later, with John F. Kerry carrying the Democratic banner, the margin was 26 points.
In 2008, Democrats are assembling behind a front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, with singular problems among white males. Polls show her support among this group is approaching the record lows scored by Democrats during the peak of Ronald Reagan’s popularity in the 1980s. Some recent hypothetical matchups—which are highly fluid at this stage of a contest—showed Clinton winning roughly a third of white males in a race against Republican Rudy Giuliani.
In the past three decades, the only two Democrats to win the presidency, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, were politicians who organized campaigns around rhetorical and ideological pitches that were designed to reassure voters skeptical of liberal values—an attitude that dominates among white males. Even these victories, however, took place amid special circumstances, with the Watergate backlash of 1976 and the Ross Perot independent boom undermining Republicans in 1992.
Despite this history, so far none of the Democratic candidates has fashioned a program or message that seems calculated to reverse the flow of white males away from the party. One of the party’s politicians who has thought most about the problem chose not to make the race in 2008.
Over the past two generations, said former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, “there was a morphing of the Democratic Party from a sense of a common good or a common commitment to each other as fellow citizens to being an advocate for groups. And I think that Democrats were advocates for every other group except for white males.”
The problem with this approach is that it leaves virtually no margin for error. To win national elections, Democrats need to win nearly all of the African-American vote, a substantial majority of Hispanics and at least come close to winning half of white women. (Democrats have not actually commanded a majority of white women since 1964.)
“Concern for the common man”
Early in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign, his pollster Richard Wirthlin wrote a book-length campaign plan—never previously obtained—detailing a strategy expressly designed to “break up” the Democratic coalition. To “target the populist voter,” the campaign would work toward the “development of the aspiring American populist theme of ‘anti-bigness—big government, big business, big labor.’” The media messages were to be “simple, direct and optimistic.” They were to focus on “blue collar” voters utilizing “principal themes” that “project a realization that these voters are no longer solely motivated by economic concerns but by larger social issues, as well.”
It was an idea that informed not simply the 1980 campaign but also the next 25 years of GOP strategy. It was to “position [Reagan] as a doer, a man of action,” the “decisive leader capable of making tough decisions.” But above all, Reagan was to “solidify a public impression” that he “has concern for the common man and understands the problems facing voters in their daily lives.”
It was Wirthlin who first coined the term “gender gap.” But once “the press ran with the idea—the question they always asked was, ‘Why is Reagan doing so poorly among women?’ But that’s only one blade of the scissors. The question I was always interested in was, ‘Why was Reagan doing so well among men?’” he says. “It’s been a mystery to me for 25 years why that wasn’t recognized.”
From 1980 on, Democrats never won more than 38 of every 100 white men who voted. Soon Republicans seemed to own masculinity itself.
Between 1948 and 2004, for the poorest third of Americans, white women’s support for Democrats hardly shifted. For white working-class men, there was a 25 percent decline. Within the middle class of white America, the Democratic Party lost the support of 15 percent of white women. But white men left Democrats at twice that rate: 29 percent.
The white backlash against liberalism, of course, predated the 1980 election. It was Lyndon Johnson, 16 years earlier, hours after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, who turned to Bill Moyers and said, “I think we have just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
Racial animus may have been part of the problem for Democrats. At least Democrats could feel good about themselves while losing elections. But it was one of Johnson’s own confidants, Harry McPherson, who later concluded that the problem with white male voters was far more complex—not confined to the South or racial politics.
As portrayed by the new breed of liberalism, the white man held all the cards, and everyone else’s bad deal was his fault. The problem was that the bulk of white men did not feel like dealers or players. They felt like pieces on someone else’s table, and their livelihood, their family’s very stability, was in richer men’s hands, as well. Increasingly, as Reagan assumed the presidency, many white men, particularly those in industrial trades, found their lives marked by instability. This was true in the home, as cultural changes refashioned the role of women and the place of sex in popular culture. And it was especially true in the workplace, as many once-secure union jobs disappeared.
Today, many white men continue to feel disempowered, distant from liberal mores and unmoored from the stability that their fathers and grandfathers enjoyed. Like others, white men feel controlled by bosses and compelled by fiscal responsibility. They take on thankless work to meet their obligations, and it often creates a sense of compromised manhood. If a white man’s salary places him in the upper class, his self-worth is often tied to that wage. For many, the definition of being a man has meant surrendering what one wants to do for what one must do. This has long been true. But modern liberalism no longer saw it that way. The hard life was said to be the easy life if one was born white and male.
Yet many Democrats expected middle- and lower-class whites to ignore their grievances with liberalism and vote Democratic based on tax policy, as if issues like the breakdown of the American family were a superficial concern. This was the worldview behind the 2004 Thomas Frank bestseller, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”
But the voters Democrats lost were not conned by distracting “wedge issues” like abortion or gun control. They quite knowingly voted for their self-interest, but they defined that interest in ways that were deeper than the size of their paychecks.
Even when efforts were made to reach some white men in 2004, it was limited to shallow discussions. The regular white guy was referred to as the “NASCAR dad.” Like Republicans’ outreach to African-Americans in the 2000 and 2004 general elections, the rhetoric failed because it was accurately perceived by both groups as mostly artifice.
A failed experiment
Today, many leading liberal intellectuals continue to argue that Democrats should not concern themselves with fundamental weaknesses. Thomas F. Schaller, author of “Whistling Past Dixie,” has argued Democrats should ignore their deficit with white men (again, more than a third of voters) as well as the South (which remains the nation’s largest region, by a margin of tens of millions of Americans).
In fact, this has been the de facto Democratic strategy for decades. Safe to say the experiment has failed.
The recent midterm elections exhibit the potential for Democrats in closing the white male gap. Democrats never would have won back the Senate in 2006 without candidates not of the urbane sort winning more white men. In crucial Senate contests, from Montana farmer Jon Tester to Robert P. Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania—whose father was barred from speaking at the 1992 Democratic convention because of his anti-abortion views—the Democrats’ victory was, above any other, dependent upon significant improvements with white men, according to exit polls.
Recently, in a conversation with veteran liberal strategist James Carville, I raised the popular belief within the liberal base that Democrats should ignore their weaknesses with white men and the South. Carville scoffed and called it an “idiotic argument.”