Just who are the white working class?

A coal miner looks on during a campaign rally for Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at Alice Pleasant Park on May 29, 2012 in Craig, Colo.

Tess Vigeland: Remember the soccer mom? And the Nascar dad? Security moms and office park dads?

We do love our election cycle swing-voter cliches. This year, from the right to the left and all across the media, there's been a lot of talk about the role of one group:

Montage: White working-class voters. White working-class voters. White working-class voters are so central.

But there's just one problem: No one can agree on exactly who these people are, or how they're feeling. Krissy Clark has more from our Wealth and Poverty Desk.


Krissy Clark: When you hear "white working class," maybe you picture a big guy, wearing:

Michael Heywood: T-shirt and jeans, steel toed boots, that sort of thing.

That's Michael Heywood of Kelso, Wash., describing himself. Never finished college. Drives a dump truck. Struggles on $40,000 a year. He's white.

Heywood: And I would definitely consider myself working-class.

Fifty years ago? He'd be a pretty good shoe-in for a Democrat. But now? He's torn.

Heywood: I am dependent on a lot of government services from food stamps to health care. But on the other hand, I have a lot of conservative ideals.

There's been a lot of time spent theorizing about guys like Heywood. White, working-class voters who over the last few decades have been eyeing the right. Is it a sign that the country's divided between Prius-driving liberals and conservatives in pick-up trucks?

Andrew Gelman: Ahhh!

That's Andrew Gelman, a political science professor at Columbia University.

Gelman: I just get a little frustrated. It's not the Prius versus the pick-up truck, it's the Prius versus the Hummer.

The real polarization in politics, Gelman says, doesn't happen between rich and poor. It happens between different kinds of rich.   Low-income workers still do vote overwhelmingly Democratic, just not blue-collar white guys like Mike Heywood. But, Gelman says, they make-up a much smaller slice of the low income work-force these days, as it turns more female and more diverse.

So, Gelman wonders, why still focus so much on just one working class sub-group?   

Gelman: You know everyone's vote just counts once, right? A white male vote isn't more legitimate than a minority vote, or a female vote?

 Still, it is worth paying attention to white, working-class men, says Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute. 

Charles Murray: The really interesting thing about voting in the white working class isn't whether it's Democrat or Republican. It's the degree to which it's declined.

And in a close election, if one party can re-engage those voters, it could make all the difference.

I'm Krissy Clark for Marketplace. 

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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