Working-class whites are flocking to Republicans ahead of next month's congressional elections, a new poll shows, turning a group long wary of Democrats into an even bigger impediment to the party's drive to keep control of Congress.
An Associated Press-GfK Poll shows whites without four-year college degrees preferring Republican candidates by twice the margin of the last two elections, when Democrats made significant gains in the House and Senate. The poll, conducted last month, found this group favoring Republican hopefuls 58 percent to 36 percent — a whopping 22 percentage-point gap.
In 2008, Barack Obama won the presidency, they favored Republican congressional candidates by 11 percentage points, according to exit polls of voters. When Democrats won the House and Senate in 2006, the Republican edge was 9 percentage points.
Republicans are expected to score big gains in the Nov. 2 congressional elections, possibly capturing control of the House of Representatives and, less likely, the Senate from Obama's Democrats.
For Dems, midterm losses could be severe
Governing parties typically lose seats in the so-called midterm elections, which take place in the middle of a president's four-year term. But Democratic losses are likely to be particularly severe because of the weak economy, high unemployment and country's general anti-Washington mood.
Also, Republican voters may turn out in higher numbers, energized by the ultraconservative Tea Party movement that opposes what its followers see as increasingly intrusive federal government.
Compared to better-educated whites, working-class whites tend to be older and more conservative — groups that traditionally lean Republican and are uneasy with the young president's activist governing.
Their wariness is reinforced by a prolonged economic funk that has disproportionately hurt the working class and shown scant signs of improvement under Obama and Congress' majority Democrats.
Though accustomed to trailing among working-class whites, Democrats can hardly afford further erosion from a group that accounts for about four in 10 voters nationally.
Their Republican preference is in contrast to whites with college degrees, who the AP-GfK Poll shows are split evenly between the two parties' candidates, and to minorities, who decisively back Democrats.
Former 'Reagan Democrats'
Many of these working-class voters were dubbed Reagan Democrats in the 1980s, when some in the North and Midwest who had previously preferred Democrats began supporting Ronald Reagan and other conservative Republicans.
Many never warmed to Obama during the 2008 presidential race, when he said some bitter small-town residents cling to guns and religion for solace. They preferred Hillary Rodham Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination, by two-to-one and in the general election backed Republican nominee John McCain by 18 percentage points.
In the AP-GfK Poll, working-class whites were likelier than white college graduates to say their families are suffering financially and to have a relative who has recently lost a job. They are less optimistic about the country's economy and their own situations, gloomier about the nation's overall direction and more critical of how Democrats are handling the economy.
"Democrats are more apt to mess with the middle class and take our money," said Lawrence Ramsey, 56, a warehouse manager in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
To appeal to voters, Obama has used nationally televised chats in people's backyards to emphasize his efforts to lift the economy. The Democratic-led Congress passed legislation with tax cuts and loans for small businesses before breaking for the election.
Republicans had their own message, unveiling a "Pledge to America" that broadly promised tax and spending cuts and criticizing congressional leaders for adjourning without voting to extend expiring income tax cuts.
Ray of hope for Democrats
One ray of hope for Democrats is that 28 percent of working-class whites in the AP-GfK Poll say they may still switch candidates. Republicans say it's too late.
"Obama and Democrats have had almost two years to try to get things back on track," said Republican pollster David Winston.
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Sept. 8-13 by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications and involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,000 randomly chosen adults. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4.2 percentage points. Included were interviews with 416 whites without college degrees, for whom the error margin is plus or minus 6.6 percentage points.
All 435 House seats are on the ballot, as well as 37 of the 100 Senate seats. There are also gubernatorial races in 37 of the 50 U.S. states.