Downscale Voters Aren't Marrying, Forming Families—Republicans Should Go Upscale

Those voters aren't marrying and aren't forming families, so the values argument won't work with them.

By + More

By Michael Barone, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

When I saw the headline " Bristol's myth" on David Frum's "New Majority" blog post, I braced myself for another of David's sneers at Sarah Palin. But he makes an important and broader point. And that is that unmarried motherhood is becoming quite common among young downscale whites, but remains very uncommon among young upscale whites. It's all very well and good, David argues, for Republicans to appeal to downscale middle-aged and elderly votes with conservative stands on cultural issues. But "family values," he says, are simply not going to be persuasive for young downscale voters who aren't marrying and forming traditional families. Here's his nut graf:

It may still be true, as Patrick Buchanan promises, that there remain many socially conservative voters who are "white, working- and middle-class, Catholic, small-town, rural, unionized, middle-age and seniors, and surviving on less than $50,000 a year." But the key fact about those voters is tucked into the middle of that sequence of descriptors: " middle-aged and seniors. "  Younger white downscale voters are a very different story. It is marriage that creates culturally conservative voters—and young downscale Americans are not getting married. When they do marry, they do not stay married: While divorce rates among the college educated have declined sharply since the 1970s, divorce rates among high school graduates remain ominously high.

A valid argument, up to a point. As liberals like to tauntingly point out, states like Oklahoma (the number one McCain-Palin state in 2008) may be full of family values voters but they also have high rates of divorce, while states like Massachusetts (the number one Kerry-Edwards state in 2004) have few family values voters but very low rates of divorce. People don't always practice what they like to hear preached. And isn't the tension between traditional values and personal behavior one of the enduring themes of country music? I don't think that unwed motherhood or frequent divorce is going to guarantee that young downscale whites won't ever become family values voters. But I'm inclined to agree with David Frum insofar as he's saying that they're less likely to do so than their older counterparts. And I'm inclined to agree that that's one reason there are more votes available to Republicans from a "go upscale" strategy than from a "go downscale" strategy, as I have recommended.

Having said that, I'm wondering whether under-30 downscale whites have been voting much at all. Under-30s accounted for 10 percent of the respondents in the 2004 exit poll and 10 percent of the respondents in the 2008 exit poll; their turnout increased, but by no more than among voters generally, it appears (there's some margin of error on these percentages, as the exit poll is not designed to pinpoint the percentage of the electorate accounted for by each demographic group). In contrast, the percentage of respondents who are black rose from 10 percent in the 2004 exit poll to 13 percent in the 2008 exit poll—an entirely plausible assumption, when you look at county-by-county or lower level election returns. There were extraordinary turnout increases, well above population increase levels, in constituencies with large percentages of black voters.

Examination of county-by-county returns also shows significant turnout increases in constituencies with large percentages of upscale young voters—in college and university towns, in gentrifying or young singles neighborhoods in places like Washington, D.C., and Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia. This obviously represents good organizational work by the Obama campaign and enthusiasm for Obama among young singles and the like. But where do you look for turnout by young downscale whites? You certainly don't see it in the Jacksonian belt from western Pennsylvania southwest to Oklahoma, where turnout was often down from 2004 and Republican percentages up (presumably because some Democratic-leaning Jacksonian voters didn't like the pacifist-seeming Barack Obama). You don't see it in places like the Mahoning Valley of Ohio, where turnout was down a bit. I haven't done much looking at election results from downscale suburbs, but my impression is that you won't find increased young turnout there.

The Obama campaign, or so I am surmising, didn't look for or locate many young downscale whites because they weren't much for Obama and they weren't much for even voting. I'm guessing that many of them simply haven't joined the electorate yet, and that if their lifestyles continue to be as chaotic and undisciplined as David Frum suggests many of them never will. I need to examine the exit poll data to see whether young voters were significantly more upscale (as represented by college education or income level) than young Americans generally. I'm guessing that they probably are. The 66 percent to 32 percent Obama vote among the young, if I'm right, was mostly a vote by the college young and doesn't tell us much about the attitudes of non-college young whites one way or the other. Non-college young blacks, on the other hand, seem to have turned out in good numbers for Obama.

On Facebook? You can keep up with Thomas Jefferson Street blog postings through Facebook's Networked Blogs.