Newt Gingrich’s annihilation of Mitt Romney in the South Carolina primary served to highlight the Republican front runner’s biggest weakness – he finds it difficult to empathise with blue collar voters. His campaign was found out in a state where unemployment is a major issue and where the blue collar vote is crucial.
Mitt Romney’s problem isn’t dissimilar to the bind faced by Conservatives in the UK. Despite having almost perfect electoral conditions at the last election, the Tories remained handicapped by their “party of the rich” label and failed to make a sufficient breakthrough amongst the skilled working class, who hold the key to British elections.
In an electoral environment dominated by job insecurity and a rising cost of living, politicians such as Romney and Cameron have to be able to empathise with blue collar voters if they’re to achieve electoral success.
President Obama’s State of the Union address made clear his determination to fight an economically populist campaign – honing in on Romney’s weaknesses and lack of the “common touch”. Obama’s rhetoric marked a clear counter-point on the same day that Romney eventually unveiled his tax returns, showing that he paid 15 per cent tax on earnings of over $45 million:
"We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules…Technology made businesses more efficient, but also made some jobs obsolete. Folks at the top saw their incomes rise like never before, but most hardworking Americans struggled with costs that were growing, paychecks that weren't, and personal debt that kept piling up."
Only 25 per cent of people earning less than $50,000 a year voted for Romney, as well as only 27 per cent of those who described themselves as “worried about the economy.” Voters with no more than a high school education voted for Gingrich over Romney by 46 to 22 per cent. As part of their exit poll, CNN asked people who had a member of their household laid off in the past three years – of those only 23 per cent voted for Romney, compared to 40 per cent for Gingrich. Romney’s victory in New Hampshire was also heavily dependent on wealthier voters.
If Romney does win the Republican nomination he will have to conquer his blue collar problem if he is to win in November. The Presidential election will be fought around a number of states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, where unemployment remains high and the votes of blue collar workers are pivotal.
President Obama made clear in his State of the Union address that his campaign will be a highly populist one – a people versus privilege campaign evoking memories of Teddy Roosevelt, FDR and Bryan’s ‘Cross of Gold’. With their salvos on Bain Capital, tax returns and Romney’s wealthy patrician background, Romney’s Republican opponents have legitimised Democrat use of the same weapons in the main campaign. Romney’s patrician background makes it difficult enough for him to engage with blue collar voters and that will be even more difficult in hard economic times.
As Joel Kotkin suggested, “the two most popular and accomplished politicians of recent decades, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, were self-made men from the working class with a great facility for establishing a clear connection with a vast portion of the electorate.”
Mitt Romney’s problem in connecting with a blue collar electorate are replicated on this side of the Atlantic by the Tories' difficulty in breaking through with working class and lower middle class voters. Whilst Romney is facing an uphill fight in replicating the appeal of Reagan and Clinton, so Cameron is having difficulty in replicating the success of Wilson, Thatcher and Blair in appealing to aspirational working class and middle class voters.
Whereas Blair won 50 per cent of the votes of the skilled working class in 1997 and 2001 and Thatcher won over 40 per cent in her three election victories, the Tories were stranded in the mid-thirties in 2010 – an election that had all the hallmarks of a “change election.” Cameron’s blue collar problem also gets worse as you head further North – and most of the battleground seats at the next election will be in the North and Midlands.
Put simply, the Tories will not be able to win a majority at the next election if they don’t do more to empathise with working class voters, particularly in the North. And Romney isn’t going to able to win in November if he doesn’t do more to empathise with working families. Establishing a connection and empathy, as well as policies responding to economic insecurity and a rising cost of living, will be crucial if Romney and Cameron are to overcome their blue collar problem.