WASHINGTON – Working-class whites are favoring Republicans in numbers that parallel the GOP tide of 1994 when the party grabbed control of the House after four decades.
The increased GOP tilt by these voters, a major hurdle for Democrats struggling to keep control of Congress in next month’s elections, reflects a mix of two factors, an Associated Press-GfK poll suggests: unhappiness with the Democrats’ stewardship of an ailing economy that has hit this group particularly hard, and a persistent discomfort with President Barack Obama.
“They’re pushing the country toward a larger government, toward too many social programs,” said Wayne Hollis, 38, of Villa Rica, Ga., who works at a home supply store.
The AP-GfK poll shows whites without four-year college degrees preferring GOP House contenders 58 percent to 36 percent. That 22-point bulge is double the edge these voters gave Republican congressional candidates in 2006 and 2008, when Democrats won House control and then padded their majority.
Ominously for Democrats, it resembles the Republicans’ 21-point advantage with working-class whites in 1994, when the GOP captured the House and Senate in a major rebuke to the Democrats and President Bill Clinton. The advantage is about the same as the 18-point margin this group gave Republicans in 2004, when President George W. Bush won re-election and helped give the GOP a modest number of additional House and Senate seats.
“Obama ran as a centrist, and clearly he’s not been that,” said GOP pollster David Winston. “People who have been part of our majority coalition are looking to come back to us.”
Working-class whites have long tilted Republican. Many were dubbed Reagan Democrats in the 1980s, when some in the North and Midwest who had previously preferred Democrats began supporting conservative Republicans.
The Democrats can hardly afford further erosion from a group that comprises about four in 10 voters nationally.
Working-class whites’ views contrast with whites who have college degrees, who the AP-GfK Poll shows are split evenly between the two parties’ candidates. Minorities decisively back Democrats.
Working-class whites backed GOP House candidates by 9 percentage points in 2006 and 11 points in 2008, according to exit polls of voters. Whites with college degrees were about evenly divided in 2006 and leaned toward Republicans by 7 points in 2008.
Compared with better-educated whites, working-class whites tend to be older and more conservative – groups that traditionally lean Republican and are uneasy with the young president’s activist governing.
From the start, this group has never embraced Obama. In the 2008 presidential race, when he said some bitter small-town residents cling to guns and religion for solace, these voters preferred his rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton, by a 2-1 margin. In the general election, they backed Republican nominee John McCain by 18 points.
According to the AP-GfK poll, they are more likely than better-educated whites to dislike Obama personally and are more negative about his leadership. Over half say he doesn’t understand ordinary Americans’ problems. They are also likelier to disapprove of Obama’s performance as president, including more than two-thirds who are unhappy with his stewardship of the economy.
In addition, working-class whites are likelier than white college graduates in the poll to say their families are suffering financially and to have a relative who’s recently lost a job. They are less optimistic about the country’s economy and their own financial situations, gloomier about the nation’s overall direction and more critical of how Democrats are handling the economy.
“Democrats are more apt to mess with the middle class and take our money,” said Lawrence Ramsey, 56, a warehouse manager in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Education is usually used to gauge the level of a population group’s lifestyle because it is closely linked to the earnings and types of jobs people attain. Salaries and cost of living vary widely across regions of the country, making income an unreliable yardstick.
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Sept. 8-13 by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications and involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,000 randomly chosen adults. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 4.2 percentage points. Included were interviews with 416 whites without college degrees, for whom the error margin was plus or minus 6.6 points.