Why Class Warfare is Working


May 21, 2013

Over the years the familiar refrain from Republicans in response to various Democratic economic proposals has been that the Democrats are engaging in “class warfare,” pitting Americans against each other based on economic standing.  And Republicans have pretty much convinced themselves that Democrats’ line of attack is not very effective and that most Americans see past it.  Depending on the specific issue and the state of the economy, they may have been correct.  But America is changing and the growing ethnic populations in this country do not necessarily view economic issues in the same way as the majority of white Americans.

As we have pointed out in previous Insights, the percentage of white Americans voting in presidential elections is coming down dramatically.  Since 1992, during presidential elections whites are making up 2-4% less of the overall electorate than during the previous presidential election.

Percentage of White Voters in Presidential Elections

Source:  Roper Center Public Opinion Archives

Add to this the fact that today, despite the burgeoning Latino population, just 48% of these voters actually cast a ballot in the 2012 Presidential race.  (Compare that with the 66.2% of African Americans and 64.1% of whites.)  So it’s not just about the increase in eligible voters among this demographic group.  As Latino voter participation rates increase to the level of African Americans and whites so too will their role in determining the outcome of elections.

Even more concerning for Republicans is the ethnic makeup of voters under age 30.  In the last presidential election 72% of all voters were white.  Among voters under 30, just 58% were white.  GOP difficulties among younger voters have less to do with social issues such as gay marriage than they do with the basic ethnic makeup of this segment of the electorate.  White voters under 30 actually voted for Mitt Romney – Latinos and African Americans overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama.

2012 Presidential Vote among 18-29 Year Olds
By Ethnicity

Source:  2012 National Exit Polls

To be sure, there is a difference between younger and older white voters, with the younger voters having fewer concerns about immigration, abortion, gay marriage and the like.  But Republicans are still winning this audience (albeit not as widely as with older whites.)  This changing demography presents a particular challenge for Republicans as they try to appeal to emerging electoral groups.  The African American, Latino and Asian experience in America is very different from the white experience and while those voters certainly look to America as the land of opportunity they do not necessarily share the same view as white Americans as to what opportunity actually means.

We recently conducted a survey in ten competitive congressional districts in California to gain better insight into Latino voting behavior and how Republicans might appeal to this growing sector of the electorate.  The most important finding in this data – and in other data we have seen – is that the Republican Party need not abandon a conservative agenda to attract Latino voters.  In fact, our results from the California survey provide a fairly clear picture of the GOP problem with those ethnic voters and it’s not based on political ideology.  We asked respondents what their major concern was about the Republican Party and found a large plurality citing “they favor the rich” (38%) with another 20% saying “they support policies that are anti-immigrant/hurt people of color.”  Just 13% say that “Republicans are too conservative” while another 10% say “they don’t understand people like me.”

Conversely when we asked what their major concern was with Democrats 34% said “they spend too much and tax too much,” 14% said they favor unions and other special interests,” 14% said they are not concerned enough about stopping illegal immigration and 13% said they were “too liberal.”  So almost identical numbers of these Latino voters say Democrats are too liberal as say Republicans are too conservative.

Leading Complaint About Republicans/Democrats Among Latino Voters

Source:  Moore Information Poll, April 2013

One particularly telling finding was when we asked these Latino voters if they would vote for a pro-life candidate who opposes gay marriage or a pro-choice candidate who supports gay marriage.  These Latino voters split evenly – 45% for the more socially conservative candidate and 44% for the more socially liberal candidate.  This despite the fact that President Obama’s favorable rating with this audience was 70% and the Democratic Party’s rating was 64% favorable while the GOP’s favorable rating was just 31%.  Go figure.

But don’t take our word for it, a recent Quinnipiac national survey showed Latinos slightly more likely than whites to believe that abortion should be illegal and a Quinnipiac survey in Florida last December found white and Latino voters split evenly on gay marriage while African Americans were widely opposed.  Republicans are not losing the non-white voter because of social issues.

And it’s not just social issues.  We found a very large plurality (49%) of the Latinos in our California survey said that in order to balance the budget the main focus of Congress should be “cutting government services.”  Only 30% said the main focus should be on “increasing taxes” while only 7% said “both equally.”

But a fiscal conservative label does not mean Latinos hate government.  These groups look to government as a problem solver, as a source for help in areas like health care and education and, importantly, in creating a level playing field for all Americans.  For instance, Latinos by a margin of 65% to 21% believe President Obama would do a better job handling health care than would Republicans in Congress.  And according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s new health care tracking poll, Latinos support Obamacare by an almost 2:1 margin while whites oppose it by an almost 2:1 margin.  The message was pretty clear: cut spending but not on health care, not on education and not on needed services. Like others, Latinos are not immune from the sometimes contradictory results we see in polling.

Emerging ethnic groups do not view government as an evil monolith out to raise taxes, waste money and stifle the private sector.  Rather they see a role for government that can help them and their families to a better life and that view simply does not square with what they are hearing from the Republican Party.  Again, we see this contrast among younger voters as well where exit polling showed whites under 30  split evenly between thinking the “government should do more” and thinking the “government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.” But, results on this question among non-whites under 30 show that, by almost 50 points, these voters believe government should be doing more.  There is a striking difference in attitudes on the role of government and that is something the GOP will not address by simply advocating a balanced budget and opposing tax increases.

So what’s the answer for the GOP?

This past fall GFK conducted a survey on racial attitudes and their results on one question provides some insight.  They tested a number of groups to measure if Americans thought each one had too much influence, not enough influence or just the right amount of influence in politics in the United States.

Here’s how Americans view the ability of different groups to influence the political process:

Source:  GFK/AP Poll, September 2012

Interestingly, more Americans (26%) believe immigrants have too much influence than believe whites (23%) have too much influence.  That is a bit deceptive as whites/long time residents make up a very large portion of the sample and are unlikely to see themselves as having too much influence.  However, one group which a vast majority of Americans believes has too much influence is “wealthy people.”  Unfortunately for Republicans, whether fairly or unfairly, they are more likely to be seen as defenders of this group and it is this identification with the wealthy, not their opposition to legalizing marijuana or gay marriage or other social issues, that drives the disconnect between Republicans and ethnic voters.

So a large majority of Americans believe that the wealthy have too much influence and Latino voters’ main concern with the GOP is that they favor the rich.  Furthermore, today this particular audience is much more likely to trust Democrats “to improve their standard of living” (58%) than to trust Republicans (25%).  It’s really no more complicated than that.

We gave these California Latino voters a list of statements about Republicans and asked which was closest to their own point of view.

“Which one of the following statements about Republicans is
closest to your own point of view?”

Source:  Moore Information Poll, April 2013

Perhaps surprisingly, just 21% said they felt Republicans were racist (and 82% of those respondents were Democrats).  But fully 41% said “Republicans aren’t racist but they don’t understand problems facing people of color.”  And that’s really the disconnect between these voters and the Republican Party.  It is most certainly true with other ethnic groups as well.  They don’t think the Party of Lincoln understands what it takes for them to succeed in America or how to help.

The fact is, the number one concern among Latinos is not immigration, it is the economy and jobs, followed by education and health care.  While the GOP position on immigration may not help with recent immigrants it is the GOP position on issues affecting their standard of living that is critical to winning these voters.  They see education as the critical building block of a better life for themselves and especially their children – and affordable health care is just as important.  When it appears as if Republicans are favoring policies that hurt access to these services the Latino community takes notice.   One need look no further than the Census Bureau’s most recent figures on per capita income to understand why.

According to the U.S. Census, the 2011 per capita income for whites in America stands at $32,673.  For African Americans that number is $18,357.  For Latinos the number is even lower at $15,479, less than half that of whites.  Those numbers are striking and indicate that the “level playing field” all Americans are supposedly competing on is not so level.  What policies and programs can Republicans advocate that puts those numbers in better alignment?  That’s what the GOP needs to address.  It is critical to show that the goal of Republican policies is not to maintain the status quo but to raise everyone’s living standard to commensurate levels.  The answer is not to eschew conservatism.  It is to show how conservative policies will allow all Americans to share equally in the country’s bounty.


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