Horowitz: Reagan Democrats are Dead or Republicans

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

 

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Rob Horowitz

Despite the fact that the Reagan Democrats are as much in the rear view mirror as  WKRP in Cincinnati, Don Johnson, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and other remnants of the 80’s, they live on in the imaginations of pundits and political candidates who for one more election cycle are talking about this voter group as if it still exists in significant numbers in the electorate. The plain facts are that Reagan Democrats by and large have either become Republicans or checked out of the earth hotel.

The last time there was this much conversation about Reagan Democrats was in 2008 when some Clinton supporters argued that Obama could not win the general election because the so-called white, working class Reagan Democrats would abandon him for the Republican nominee. In fact, Obama went on to win 89% of self-identified Democrats as he easily defeated John McCain in the general election.

There is, of course, historical reality, to the term ‘Reagan Democrat." In 1980, Ronald Reagan won 27% of Democrats in his decisive victory over Jimmy Carter.. But this was back in the day when party identification reflected regional coalitions and family history as much as ideology. Conservative Southern Democrats such as Sam Nunn and Liberal Northern Republicans such as John Chafee were not yet endangered species.

As the political scientist, Alan Abramowitz asserts, beginning as a consequence of the civil rights movement and accelerating due to Reagan, the American electorate went through an ideological realignment in which  voters‘ party identification shifted based on their issue positions and over-all political outlook. Conservative Democrats became Republicans and liberal Republicans moved to the Democratic Party. This is one of the reasons the number of ticket-splitters have declined from about 1-in-4 voters to less than 1-in-10. Now in Presidential elections, just about 90% of Democrats and Republican identifiers vote for their respective party’s nominee.

Additionally, since the 1980 election was more than 35 years ago, mortality has taken its inevitable toll on the Reagan Democrats and the historical factors that created this sub-group do not at all apply to the rising millennial generation.  

Further, Reagan Democrats is a term often wrongly used interchangeably with white working class Democrats. The white working class, particularly working class males , already vote Republican in overwhelming numbers. In 2012, President Obama lost white non-college men by more than 2-to-1. The non-college men and women who have remained in the Democratic party have done so because they share an ideology and world view and while it is possible for a more economically populist nominee such as Donald Trump to pick off a few of them,  they are not open to persuasion in large, election deciding numbers. Also, white non-college voters as a whole represent a declining share of the electorate

So when you hear someone arguing that their candidate will be strong in the general election because they will appeal to the so-called ‘Reagan Democrats', ask them if they still have their boom boxes and cabbage patch dolls and let them know they are literally whistling past the graveyard.

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.

 

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