BUTLER, Pa. — To many people looking in from the outside, the mantra of the summer for Republican presidential candidates has been to say anything, do anything to appeal to American workers. But it’s a challenge even for candidates with the most working-class authenticity.
Witness Paige Hackett, who felt exhausted and drained after working two shifts in low-wage jobs in late May. Then hometown favorite Rick Santorum announced his presidential candidacy there.
Hackett had worked the late shift at Pizza Hut the night before the announcement as a server and “phone slave.” At her second job, she waited on the breakfast-and-lunch crowd at Shelly’s Main Street Grille.
Leaning on a street-side wall after the morning shift, the 18-year-old didn’t pause when LifeZette asked her opinion of Santorum, whose announcement garnered significant local news attention.
“I’m on the fence about him,” said Hackett.
She’s a registered independent who graduated from the same local high school as Santorum, the school’s most famous student.
Hackett’s ambivalence about the candidate was matched by other lower-income workers – not solely about Santorum, but about Republicans in general. Younger white workers, especially, have different views and respond to different cues than an earlier generation of “Reagan Democrat” workers whose cultural views played a big role in their large-scale voting migration to Republicans in the 1980s.
Hackett said she plans to vote in 2016, but suggested some of her friends might not. One friend has a part-time job and panhandles for extra cash. Other friends disapproved of both Obama and the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
One block away were Josh Frey, his wife, Anika Lee Craig, and their 6-month-old daughter, Eliza. Walking door to door, the couple tried to sell videos to anyone who might buy them. Unemployed and squirming as the sun heated their skin and clothes, they were trying to raise the $21 entry price for the swimming pool at the local YMCA.
Frey, 27, is a registered Republican and voted for Romney in 2012. He said he hasn’t been following the political news, including the announcement by Santorum. Frey has been busy looking for a job and taking care of his newborn, he said, adding, “I don’t know on that one. I haven’t looked.”
These Americans illustrate three major problems the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nominee will face in winning support among many northern working-class voters. The GOP leaders need to win those votes if they want to enter the White House in 2017 — especially if they lose in Florida. That big state, and its 29 votes in the electoral college, is trending Democratic as the growing number of low-income Hispanic immigrants are lining up with the big-spending, high-tax, pro-government Democratic Party against the employer-dominated GOP.
First, the GOP’s social and cultural pitch isn’t a sure-fire winner among younger blue-collar workers. Hackett, whose blue hair stands out in Butler’s concrete-gray and brick-red streets, says the Republican Party’s stand on cultural issues is a turn-off. Hackett said she supports abortion, same-sex marriage, and even a pathway to citizenship for foreign migrants.
“The party that wins the next election will be the one that speaks best to how to help people economically.”
“My grandmother was a big Catholic and very against abortion, but people should have a human right to control their bodies. My [male] friend was married [to a woman] and then got a boyfriend,” said Hackett, who is agnostic.
Young people ages 18 to 29, and also unmarried women, are not Republican constituencies, and they vote strongly for Democrats in presidential years.
A second problem is voter apathy. For Hackett’s friends, choosing between presidential candidates was not worth the trouble. They were not alone. In 2012, 6.1 million fewer white voters (and potential Romney voters) than expected didn’t bother to vote, according to Sean Trende, a political analyst for RealClearPolitics.
The non-voters clustered in a line that stretched diagonally from New Mexico to Maine, across the middle-American region that gave many of its votes to businessman Ross Perot during his 1992 third-party presidential bid. Perot did best among “secular, blue-collar, often rural voters who were turned off by Bill Clinton’s perceived liberalism and George H.W. Bush’s elitism,” Trende wrote.
A third problem is that many working-class voters really want to vote for Hillary Clinton.
“I want Hillary to run,” Craig said, raising her voice.
Frey agreed. “We elected a black guy last time. Why not give a woman a shot?” he said.
Hillary Clinton’s approval ratings have dipped below 50 percent. According to the Huffington Post’s survey of polls, 46 percent of those surveyed approve of her and 48 percent disapprove. But Clinton has shown appeal to blue-collar workers. In Pennsylvania’s 2008 Democratic primary, she defeated Obama 64-36 among voters who had earned no more than a high-school diploma.
To be sure, the three voters were not sure bets for Clinton even if, as expected, she wins the 2016 Democrat Party nod.
Hackett, for example, likes Republicans’ economic policies.
“Republicans seem like they have a plan. I don’t know about the Democrats,” she said.
And Frey and Craig, when asked about parties rather than specific candidates, identified somewhat more with Republicans than with Democrats.
This is not an anomaly. Just two weeks ago, a July 16-19 poll showed that whites without college degrees feel, by a 50-29 margin, that Republicans have “better ideas about how to make the economic system more fair than it is now.”
But it’s just a vague sense. And that hasn’t moved them to the polls for Republicans yet, or at least certainly not in droves.
The ambivalence or indifference of northern working-class whites is not the only problem Republicans face in 2016. In vying to attract these downscale voters, the GOP can’t afford to antagonize higher earners.
In 2004, wartime President George W. Bush carried voters with a college education by a 52 percent to 46 percent margin. He also won voters with a high-school diploma by a 52 percent to percent 47 margin, partly because of Democrats’ support of gay marriage and partial-birth abortion. By carrying both voting blocs, Bush won his re-election.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., lost both voting blocs when he fell to Obama in 2008 during the economic meltdown.
Romney, the wealthy CEO, carried college graduates by a solid 51 percent to 47 percent margin, but he lost non-college working-class voters. Battered by Obama’s negative ads and his own complaint about people who don’t pay income taxes, his margin among working-class voters was even worse in the northern battleground states, such as New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Iowa.
Reporters don’t write often about this juggling act — about balancing the interests of upscale and downscale voters and getting both constituencies to head to the polls.
Today’s Republican aspirants are maneuvering around this conundrum.
Consider Santorum. He is making his push for working-class voters central to his populist-mined campaign. At a campaign event at Penn United Technologies, a tool-and-die manufacturing plant in Cabot, Pennsylvania, he pledged to help “take back America,” as workers in shirt sleeves and blue jeans looked on from a metal staircase.
“Working families don’t need another president who signs on to big government or big money,” Santorum said, pausing for two seconds to deliver his punch line. “And today is the day we begin to fight back!” The crowd roared for 15 seconds.
His first legislative priority as president would be a “simpler, fairer flat tax,” Santorum said. He didn’t elaborate, but in 2012 Santorum supported reducing top marginal tax rates while consolidating income taxes into just two brackets. The tax policy would likely help both downscale and upscale voters.
Santorum also supports nationalist-minded policies that would help downscale voters. For example, he opposes policies that allow companies to import more than 1 million temporary guest workers each year, and he opposes amnesty, or a “pathway to citizenship,” for illegal immigrants.
Santorum is trying to win those missing 2012 blue-collar voters, said John Brabender, Santorum’s chief strategist.
“If you look at the exit polls from Ohio, you see a drop off among those voters,” Brabender told Lifezette at the announcement rally.
In contrast, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has appealed to upscale voters by supporting business-friendly policies, what conservatives regard as amnesty for many illegal immigrants and Common Core education standards for states.
Bush has made little more than a bow in the direction of downscale voters. For example, in January, he hired April Ponnuru as a policy aide. She’s one of the GOP’s so-called “reformacons,” who have crafted family friendly policy proposals.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker repeatedly plays up his midwestern roots.
“When you look at Iowa, you look at Wisconsin, you look at Michigan, you look at Ohio, sometimes you include Pennsylvania. … You look at those key states, and I think that’s the pathway by which the next president is going to get elected,” Walker said at a May fundraiser in Iowa.
He’s also seeking to win appeal among downscale voters by saying that legal immigration should be lowered to help working Americans, while trying to win upper-income business-friendly GOP voters by highlighting his successful anti-union policies.
In one way or another, it seems, every Republican candidate is trying to attract the “middle-American” voters who stayed home in 2012. It’s anybody’s bet which, if any, of these candidates will succeed. To do so effectively is probably the political imperative of this presidential cycle.
“The party that wins the next election,” said Stuart Stevens, the longtime GOP consultant who was Romney’s chief strategist, “will be the one that speaks best to how to help people economically.”