Will the attacks on unions finally bring Reagan Democrats all the way home?

Opinion Zone,Christopher Murray

As the protests continue in Madison and new battles have flared up in Ohio and Indiana, one question that hangs over the debate about unions is what the electoral ramifications will be.  If these events spark a renewed consciousness on the left among not only union members, but progressives more broadly, Democrats could go a long way toward erasing last year’s Republican gains and ensuring President Obama’s re-election. 

Conversely, part of the strategy behind Republicans’ actions is to weaken not just collective bargaining rights but, clearly, the political muscle that unions have exerted in support of the Democratic Party.

Calculating just how much unions contribute to the Democrats’ electoral fortunes, however, is tricky.  In an insightful post the other day, Nate Silver rightly notes that a number of variables tend to be correlated with unionism, thus making it difficult to isolate their effect on the Democratic vote.  Nonetheless, he argues that there is an effect worth paying attention to as well. 

I'd suggest that this will especially the case in competitive states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and the other Rust Belt battlegrounds where presidential contests tend to be decided.  In similar commentary, Will Wilkinson argues that the current protests may act as the left’s Tea Party moment, rallying progressives around first principles like the rights of workers to mobilize and collectively bargain.

In thinking about these questions, it’s helpful to bring in a bit of historical context.  For decades, union voters were the backbone of the New Deal and post WWII Democratic coalition.  This was a coalition of voters that consistently elected Democratic presidents and congressional majorities.  However, by the late 1960’s and into the 1970’s, union voters’ support for the Democratic Party had begun to unravel.  With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 it seemed as if this linkage had been severed altogether.  This phenomenon was best captured by pollster Stanley Greenberg and his identification of “Reagan Democrats.” 

Oftentimes socially and culturally conservative, union voters had come to see the Democratic Party as no longer representing their interests but those of minorities, feminists, the youth, and the cultural elite.  Reagan’s call to patriotism and his positions on defense appealed to their desire to rebuild and reclaim America. They rewarded him handsomely with their votes.

For Greenberg, Macomb County Michigan was the locus of the Reagan Democrat phenomenon.  Overwhelmingly white, heavily Catholic, and with a strong union presence, this county provided a lens through which we could view the decline of the Democrats’ fortunes with organized labor. 

In 1960, Macomb was the most Democratic suburban county in the country.  It gave John Kennedy 63% of the vote and upped its Democratic support four years later giving LBJ an astonishing 75%.  In 1980, Reagan won Macomb County with 52% of the vote, signaling the transformation taking place within in the electorate.  In his 1984 re-election landslide he upped his total to 66% and George Bush sustained the GOP’s inroads into the union vote with 60% in 1988.

Even though the Democrats’ performance in Macomb County and among union voters nationwide has recovered somewhat, it has not reached the levels seen prior to the 1970’s.  Rather, though still Democratic, these voters remain a coveted target of both parties’ nominees.  President Clinton lost Macomb County in 1992 by five points.  Despite his support for NAFTA he was able to win it by a healthy 11% 1996.  In 2000 it gave Al Gore a slim 2% margin but shifted to the Republicans in 2004. 

On the eve of the 2008 election, Greenberg revisited Macomb County and reprised his analysis.  While he found that race was less of a factor in how Macomb’s white, blue collar electorate viewed Barack Obama than he suspected, the underlying economic dynamic was unmistakable.  These voters had a dire sense of uncertainty about the fate of the middle class and yearned for a candidate who could understand their struggles and work on their behalf.  In the end, Obama won Macomb County with 53%, exactly his national total. 

However, it was 4% less than he got across the rest of Michigan.  In last year’s Republican wave, the county gave new Republican Governor Vic Snyder 61% of the vote, 3% higher than his statewide total.  Thus, it seems as if the anxiety that Greenberg first found nearly three decades ago persists, creating an unpredictable political terrain for candidates.

The connection between union voters and modern day Democrats therefore remains tenuous, yet crucial to the party’s success.  According to exit polling, union voters favored Barack Obama over John McCain 59% to 39% in 2008.  Also, consider the following.  If one ranks states according to their level of unionization, President Obama won 23 of the 25 most unionized states in the country (Only Alaska, West Virginia, and Montana were lost, totaling just 11 electoral votes).

It is also important to remember that this dynamic is taking place at a time when unionization rates are declining overall.  A recent report places the national rate of unionization at 11.9%.  In digging into this figure we see that public sector unionization (36.2%) is higher than that among private sector workers (6.9%). 

Overall, there are more people in public than private sector unions.  Thus, when we think of “organized labor” the reality is that it is no longer by and large welders, machinists, and auto workers, but teachers, social workers, and other government workers that make up the ranks.  Hence, it shouldn’t surprise us that the events in Wisconsin have touched off a firestorm within the organized labor movement as well as among those seeking to curtail them.  Even among those who might normally be on the same side as union members and leaders, the current economic troubles make sympathizing with their plight difficult.  If the unions, with their benefits and pensions, represent security and a step above one’s own place on the economic ladder, they are going to generate a certain level of resentment. 

This sentiment is clearly fueling some of the support that Governors Walker, Kasich, and Daniels are drawing upon.

Going forward, then, Democrats need to hope that the enthusiasm and mobilization that has happened among blue collar workers and their allies on the left will sustain itself over the next year.  If it does, the frayed connection between the union rank and file and the Democratic Party may not only be repaired but allow the labor movement to become a more prominent member of the party’s voting, not just fundraising, coalition. 

Even though their numbers have been in decline, their intensity may in the end prove to be more important.

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