Democrats Try Wooing Ones Who Got Away: White Men

Jackie Calmes, New York Times, March 3, 2014

Frank Houston knows something about the longtime estrangement of white men from the Democratic Party. His family roots are in nearby Macomb County, the symbolic home of working-class Reagan Democrats who, distressed by economic and social tumult, decided a liberal Democratic Party had left them, not the other way around.

Mr. Houston grew up in the 1980s liking Ronald Reagan but idolizing Alex P. Keaton, the fictional Republican teenage son of former hippies who, played by Michael J. Fox on the television series “Family Ties,” comically captured the nation’s conservative shift. But over time, Mr. Houston left the Republican Party because “I started to realize that the party doesn’t represent the people I grew up with.”

Now, as chairman of the Democratic Party in Oakland County, Michigan’s second largest, Mr. Houston is finding out how difficult it can be to persuade other white men here to support Democrats, even among the 20 or so, mostly construction workers, who join him in a rotating poker game.

Mr. Houston is part of an internal debate at all levels of his party over how hard it should work to win over white men, especially working-class men without college degrees, at a time when Democrats are gaining support from growing numbers of female and minority voters.

It is a challenge that runs throughout the nation’s industrial heartland, in farm states and across the South, after a half-century of economic, demographic and cultural shifts that have reshaped the electorate. Even in places like Michigan, where it has been decades since union membership lists readily predicted Democratic votes, many in the party pay so little attention to white working-class men that it suggests they have effectively given up on converting them.


So Mr. Houston and like-minded Democrats are working to deploy new, data-driven targeting tools to get the message to white men that the party is more in sync with them than they might think. “We can tell you to the number how many we need and where they live,” said Matt Canter, the deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

No Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of white men since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. {snip}


Democrats generally win the votes of fewer than four in 10 white men. But they win eight of 10 minority voters and a majority of women, who have been a majority of the national electorate since 1984, while white men have shrunk to a third, and are still shrinking.

White male voters have been crucial in some past midterms, most clearly in 1994, when they helped Republicans take control of the House for the first time in 40 years, and again in 2010.

And this year, Democrats, hobbled by Mr. Obama’s sagging popularity, are defending many red-state Senate seats, including some in places with few members of minorities, like West Virginia. A big reason for Democrats’ emphasis on raising the minimum wage is the polling proof that the issue resonates with all groups, including white men. In Michigan, Mr. Houston is leading an effort to place a minimum-wage increase on the November ballot and said it “really polls well with white men.”

Some white men have proved to be within reach: single men, college students and graduates with advanced degrees, the nonreligious, and gay men. But working-class married men remain hardest to win over and, unless they are in unions, get the least attention—to the dismay of some partisans.


What discourages Democrats is that men’s attitudes shaped over generations—through debates over civil rights, anti-Communism, Vietnam, feminism, gun control and dislocations from lost manufacturing jobs and stagnant wages in a global economy—are not easily altered.


Democrats’ gloom about white men was eased temporarily by Mr. Obama’s 2008 election when he won 41 percent of white male voters—the first time a Democrat exceeded 40 percent since Mr. Carter in 1976. But their support for his re-election fell to 35 percent, roughly what Democrats have gotten since they lost to Richard Nixon.


Generally, however, the Democrats’ Senate majority is at risk, which helps explain why the party has not tried to revive gun-safety legislation proposed after the Newtown, Conn., school massacre. Few issues have hurt Democrats more among working-class white men over time.

“It’s a bad stigma: If you’re a Democrat, you’re against guns,” said State Representative Scott Dianda, a Democrat in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He is quick to say he is a hunter.


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