Political Hay

Wonder Bread or Blue Collar?

The White House struggles to maintain the GOP as the party of white-bread suburbia -- meaning, all quiet on the social issues front.

By 5.13.04

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WASHINGTON -- Analysts have offered many reasons why President Bush worked so hard for liberal Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) in his primary race against conservative challenger Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). At the heart of this tack by the White House is a struggle to maintain the GOP as the party of white-bread suburbia.

The Republican establishment is resisting the realignment in American politics that soon will have the parties divided primarily along the lines of cultural issues. The Bush team is not ready to trade in their pro-choice, upper-middle class, fiscally conservative Specter voters in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and Westchester County, New York, for the church-going union members in York County, Pa.,. and Corning, New York. In this, the Bushes are fighting the future.

As of April, Pennsylvania had 445,000 more Democrats than Republicans. Bush will need to win many of those Democrats in order to take the Keystone State and its 21 Electoral College votes. This is where the Bush campaign comes to a fork in the road.

AFTER THE 2002 Pennsylvania Democratic Gubernatorial primary between former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell and state Auditor Bob Casey, Jr., a color-coded county-by-county breakdown of the vote looked even more polarized than the famous Red-and-Blue U.S. map of the 2000 presidential race.

Rendell won only Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, State College, and the Philly suburbs. Casey, whose father as Governor tried to overturn Roe v. Wade in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, won every other part of the state. Rendell won 702,000 votes to Casey's 539,000.

The dramatic geographic separation of Casey's voters and Rendell's voters suggests that these are two very different kinds of Democrats. Casey didn't win the rural counties by promising farm subsidies. He won the rural counties because his name is almost an icon for the pro-life, hard-working Catholics and Protestant Democrats who live in those counties.

The question is: Should Bush pursue Casey's Democrats or Rendell's in order to get to 50 percent in November?

BUSH WILL NOT WIN OVER many of the Democrats in Philadelphia proper, which is 43 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic. After Philadelphia and urban Pittsburgh, Rendell Democrats mostly live the "collar counties" which surround Philly. In Montgomery, Bucks, and Delaware Counties, Rendell won by 125,000 votes, garnering 86 percent compared to his statewide 56 percent.

Bush lost these three counties in 2000. He hopes he can win or tie there in 2004 with Specter on the ballot with him. Specter, after all, got twice his margin of victory in these counties. Specifically, Bush hopes to win over the Rendell voters who had been Republicans but switched their registration in 2002 to vote against Casey.

These suburban voters did this, in large part, because after two terms of pro-choice Gov. Tom Ridge (R), they were not about to have to choose between a pro-life Democrat and a pro-life Republican in November. These voters insured there was a socially liberal candidate on the ballot (Rendell), and then backed him in the general election.

Despite their support for legalized abortion and acceptance of homosexuality, Montgomery County voters have a strong Republican streak. If a voter (a) graduated from college, (b) earns over $50,000 a year, or (c) is white, he is more likely to vote Republican than Democrat. All three of those describe much of the collar counties.

These country-club Republicans are motivated by tax cuts and welfare reform, and turned off by affirmative action and class warfare, but they are not cultural conservatives. Bush used the Specter-Toomey primary on April 27 as the trial run for his get-out-the-vote machine in Pennsylvania, mostly in the collar counties. If he hopes to win Specter/Rendell voters, Bush will need to stay quiet on abortion and gay marriage.

THE CASEY DEMOCRATS, meanwhile, may be union members and may not be the targets of John Kerry's planned tax hikes, but they believe in God, go to church weekly, and don't really entertain a liberal social agenda. However, they do come from Democratic families, and so would need a dramatic reason to vote GOP.

The White House could give them this reason by running a pro-life campaign, but the vigorous rejection of Toomey was a tacit rejection of that sort of campaign. The bottom line is that the Bush campaign would rather try to hold on to the white-bread social liberals than try to win-over the blue-collar social conservatives.

There will be a time, perhaps in eight or 12 years, when the GOP will no longer be able to run from its identity as the socially conservative party. The establishment of both parties will soon have no choice but admit that the parties are defined, at their heart, by their supporters' attitudes towards abortion, homosexuality, and marriage.

For now, however, the Bush team wants to slow this movement. The lefties are already firmly against them. The Mountain states and the South are clearly with them. It's the blue-collar social conservatives and the white-bread social liberals who are the outliers -- the exception to the rule.

After Election Day, check the results in Philadelphia's suburbs -- let's see if Bush has managed to keep the battle lines blurred in the culture war.

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About the Author

Timothy P. Carney is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and the author of The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money (Wiley).