Democrats Try Wooing Ones Who Got Away: White Men
By JACKIE CALMESMARCH 2, 2014
ROYAL OAK, Mich. — Frank Houston knows something about the longtime estrangement of white men from the Democratic Party. His family roots are in nearby Macomb County, the symbolic home of working-class Reagan Democrats who, distressed by economic and social tumult, decided a liberal Democratic Party had left them, not the other way around.
Mr. Houston grew up in the 1980s liking Ronald Reagan but idolizing Alex P. Keaton, the fictional Republican teenage son of former hippies who, played by Michael J. Fox on the television series “Family Ties,” comically captured the nation’s conservative shift. But over time, Mr. Houston left the Republican Party because “I started to realize that the party doesn’t represent the people I grew up with.”
Now, as chairman of the Democratic Party in Oakland County, Michigan’s second largest, Mr. Houston is finding out how difficult it can be to persuade other white men here to support Democrats, even among the 20 or so, mostly construction workers, who join him in a rotating poker game.
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Unconvinced by Democrats
Mr. Houston is part of an internal debate at all levels of his party over how hard it should work to win over white men, especially working-class men without college degrees, at a time when Democrats are gaining support from growing numbers of female and minority voters.
It is a challenge that runs throughout the nation’s industrial heartland, in farm states and across the South, after a half-century of economic, demographic and cultural shifts that have reshaped the electorate. Even in places like Michigan, where it has been decades since union membership lists readily predicted Democratic votes, many in the party pay so little attention to white working-class men that it suggests they have effectively given up on converting them.
Not Mr. Houston. “There’s a whole cadre of us — of young, white men political leaders in Oakland County — who are saying, ‘We can’t just write off 30-year-old to 40-year-old guys, let alone anyone who’s older.’ ”
So Mr. Houston and like-minded Democrats are working to deploy new, data-driven targeting tools to get the message to white men that the party is more in sync with them than they might think. “We can tell you to the number how many we need and where they live,” said Matt Canter, the deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
No Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of white men since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all prevailed with support of the so-called rising electorate of women, especially single women, and minorities. But fewer of those voters typically participate in midterm elections, making the votes of white men more potent and the struggle of Democrats for 2014 clear.
“Realistically, winning votes from working-class white men has just been a very tough political challenge for Democrats,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster. With demographic trends favoring Democrats nationally and in many states, strategists say it makes sense to concentrate resources on mobilizing women, young people, Hispanics, blacks and other minority voters.
Democrats generally win the votes of fewer than four in 10 white men. But they win eight of 10 minority voters and a majority of women, who have been a majority of the national electorate since 1984, while white men have shrunk to a third, and are still shrinking.
White male voters have been crucial in some past midterms, most clearly in 1994, when they helped Republicans take control of the House for the first time in 40 years, and again in 2010.
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And this year, Democrats, hobbled by Mr. Obama’s sagging popularity, are defending many red-state Senate seats, including some in places with few members of minorities, like West Virginia. A big reason for Democrats’ emphasis on raising the minimum wage is the polling proof that the issue resonates with all groups, including white men. In Michigan, Mr. Houston is leading an effort to place a minimum-wage increase on the November ballot and said it “really polls well with white men.”
Some white men have proved to be within reach: single men, college students and graduates with advanced degrees, the nonreligious, and gay men. But working-class married men remain hardest to win over and, unless they are in unions, get the least attention — to the dismay of some partisans.
“You can’t just give Republicans a clear field to play for the votes of white working-class men without putting up some sort of a fight because that just allows them to run the table with these voters, thereby potentially offsetting your burgeoning advantage among minorities, single women, millennials,” said Ruy Teixeira, an analyst at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
“I just think Democrats are having a hard time figuring out how to effectively pursue it,” he added.
What discourages Democrats is that men’s attitudes shaped over generations — through debates over civil rights, anti-Communism, Vietnam, feminism, gun control and dislocations from lost manufacturing jobs and stagnant wages in a global economy — are not easily altered.
“Democrats are for a bunch of freeloaders in this world as far as I’m concerned,” said Gari Day, 63, an Avis bus driver from suburban Detroit. “Republicans make you work for your money, and try to let you keep it.”
Michael Bunce, 48, buying parts at a Lowe’s in Southfield, Mich., first ascribed his Republican bias to fiscal matters, but quickly turned to social issues like gay rights. “I don’t see why that’s at the top of our priority list,” he said. “But you say that out in the open, and people are all over your back.”
Democrats’ gloom about white men was eased temporarily by Mr. Obama’s 2008 election when he won 41 percent of white male voters — the first time a Democrat exceeded 40 percent since Mr. Carter in 1976. But their support for his re-election fell to 35 percent, roughly what Democrats have gotten since they lost to Richard Nixon.
Republicans say Democrats’ appeals to women, minorities and gays have been counterproductive with white men. “When you’re spending 60 percent of your time talking about birth control and Obamacare, not a lot of men are paying attention to you,” said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Among the Senate races where white men could be decisive are those in Georgia, where a Democrat, Michelle Nunn, is wooing them in hopes that many will favorably remember her father, Sam Nunn, a popular former senator, and in Arkansas, where Senator Mark Pryor, whose father, David Pryor, was also a longtime senator, is fighting to keep his job with frequent talk of his Christian faith.
Senator Mark Warner of Virginia has stood out among Democrats for years with his efforts to court white working-class men, stumping rural areas and small towns in Senate and governor’s races. Currently, he is favored to beat Ed Gillespie, the former Republican Party chairman.
Generally, however, the Democrats’ Senate majority is at risk, which helps explain why the party has not tried to revive gun-safety legislation proposed after the Newtown, Conn., school massacre. Few issues have hurt Democrats more among working-class white men over time.
“It’s a bad stigma: If you’re a Democrat, you’re against guns,” said State Representative Scott Dianda, a Democrat in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He is quick to say he is a hunter.
Democrats’ disadvantage in Michigan with white men was plain in a poll of likely voters last month by the nonpartisan EPIC-MRA. Representative Gary Peters, the Democratic candidate for Senate, trailed Terri Lynn Land, the Republican secretary of state, by three percentage points. But among white men, she led by 21 points.
Mr. Peters, like Mr. Houston, is from populous Oakland County, but for six days recently, Mr. Peters traversed Michigan’s northernmost reaches, prospecting in the subzero cold of the vast Upper Peninsula — home to 3 percent of the state’s population — for votes among the mostly white residents, known as “Yoopers.” He did what he could to get their attention. At one point, Mr. Peters spied some fathers with their sons atop a snow pile for WOLV-FM’s “Yooper Luge.” He got the broadcaster to introduce him, then borrowed a boy’s plastic disc and skidded downhill.
In another town, he stopped to see a single voter: a Republican small-business man.
“The fact that he was there in my conference room speaks volumes,” said the man, Mark Massicotte, 57, president of L’Anse Manufacturing. “It counts for a lot. It tells me he’s listening.”http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/03/us/politics/democrats-try-wooing-ones-who-got-away-white-men.html?_r=0