One of the many narratives floating around at the moment involves the Democratic Party’s inability to attract white voters. This morning, I saw Robert Reich post yet again on Facebook that the decline of Democratic white votes is directly tied to moves the party made under Bill Clinton in the 1990’s. Reich shows data for white voters without college degrees from 1992 to the present:
Reich correlates the decline in vote share for the Democrats with Bill Clinton’s policies and the party’s general move away from addressing working class issues.
It is certainly fair to say the Democrats moved to the right after 1992. But whether that was a cause or an effect is debatable. I was not able to find earlier data on non college degree white voting patterns. But I have found data going back before 1992 which might shed some light.
Here is a chart I compiled of the overall share of white votes captured in Presidential elections going back to 1952:
Overall, white voters switched between the two parties in the 1950’s and early 60’s. Then, between 1964 and 1968, they moved towards the GOP and remained there almost continuously up to the present. In 1992, Reich points out the shares of white votes were relatively evenly divided. But of course, he overlooks the 20% share of the white vote that Ross Perot captured that year, a large proportion of which appears to have been sliced out of the GOP.
If, in fact, white voters turned away because of Clinton’s policies, specifically NAFTA, which was passed relatively early in his first term, shouldn’t we have seen the Democrats’ share of white votes fall off more sharply? We don’t. What we see instead is a fairly flat trend for Democrats with Republicans capturing a growing share. Until this year, that is.
In 1968, George Wallace, running on a segregationist platform, captured 15% of the white vote. That probably dampened what was a clear move towards the GOP. But by 1972, that move had accelerated under Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy to capture the votes of white voters who were not comfortable with Civil Rights.
Democrats passed and signed into law the 1960 and 1964 Civil Rights Acts which outlawed segregation and enforced access for black voters under a regime of inspection that was removed by the Supreme Court in 2013. The 2016 Presidential election was the first one to be held since that decision. It will be interesting to see whether there are correlations between the removal of the protections of the previous law and voting patterns in southern states and between white and non-white voters.
Looking at these long term trends, it seems pretty clear that racial politics played a large role in the movement of white voters away from Democrats and towards the Republican party. Support for NAFTA and similar policies by Democrats may well have helped lose them white working class support. But the data suggests that support for civil rights did as much or (far) more. Certainly it complicated their ability to speak to these voters.
Republicans could and often did use race to appeal to voters’ fear and instil distrust of the Democrats and liberals more generally.
Obviously the Democrats need to win more working class white voters. To the extent rural voters and rural white voters in particular are experiencing a decline severe enough to get them to come out for someone like Donald Trump, someone other than the alt right needs to find a way to speak to them. But let’s not pretend that race is not and has not been a factor in this.