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News Release | New Survey Dispels Myths About White Working-Class Americans, Resets Debate About This Critical Group Ahead of the Election

[09.20.2012]

New Survey Dispels Myths About White Working-Class Americans, Resets Debate About This Critical Group Ahead of the Election

Romney has lead among white working-class voters overall, but closer race among white working-class women, Midwesterners, and Catholics

WASHINGTON — Less than two months before Americans go to the polls to elect their president, a new national survey released today upends commonly held-beliefs about white working-class Americans. The report, “Beyond God and Guns: Understanding the Complexities of the White Working Class in America,” highlights the significant divides among white working-class Americans along the lines of region, religion, gender, and age.

“Both the right and the left operate with stereotypes about white working-class Americans,” noted Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, which conducted the survey. “The left has argued that white working-class Americans vote entirely on the basis of religion and traditional values and ignore their own economic interests, while more recently the right has argued that their problems are rooted in a lack of religious engagement and a weak work ethic. Neither side is right.”

The survey dispels five commonly held myths about the white working class. Contrary to popular belief, white working-class Americans do not have a strong affinity with the Tea Party movement, nor are they politically animated by culture wars issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. Rather, white working-class Americans are no more likely than white college-educated Americans to say they consider themselves part of the Tea Party movement (13 percent vs. 10 percent). And only 1-in-20 white working-class Americans say that either abortion (3 percent) or same-sex marriage (2 percent) is the most important issue to their vote.

The survey also demonstrates that white working-class Americans have not abandoned traditional religiosity and a strong work ethic, and shows that white working-class Americans do not blindly vote against their economic interests. Similarly, white working-class Americans do not embrace unfettered free market capitalism, but rather display a strong strain of economic populism.

“When it comes to America’s economic problems, white working-class Americans spread the blame widely,” said Daniel Cox, PRRI Research Director. “However, one item stands out. Nearly 8-in-10 white working-class Americans say that corporations moving jobs overseas are responsible for our current economic predicament, including a majority who say corporate outsourcing is very responsible.”

The survey also finds that white working-class Americans articulate a sense of alienation from government, which they see as an outside force that often does not prioritize their needs. Six-in-ten (60 percent) white working-class Americans say that when they think about the U.S. government, they think of it as “the” government, while less than 4-in-10 (39 percent) say they think of the government as “our” government. Nearly half (49 percent) of white working-class Americans also agree that the government has paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities over the past few decades. However, white working-class Americans who live in the West (40%), Midwest (48%), and Northeast (48 percent) are less likely than white working-class Americans in the South (58%) to hold this view.

Among the Findings:

    • When the survey was fielded in mid-August, white working-class voters supported Governor Mitt Romney over President Obama (48 percent vs. 35 percent). There were substantial differences by region: white working-class voters in the South demonstrated the strongest preference for Romney over Obama (62 percent vs. 22 percent). Neither candidate held a statistically significant lead in the West (46 percent Romney vs. 41 percent Obama), Northeast (42 percent Romney vs. 38 percent Obama), or the Midwest (36 percent Romney vs. 44 percent Obama).
    • White working-class Americans are unenthusiastic about both candidates. Less than half of white working-class Americans have a favorable view of Romney (45 percent) or Obama (44 percent).
    • The survey debunks five widely held myths about the white working class in America:
      • Myth 1. White working-class Americans strongly identify with the Tea Party. White working-class Americans are no more likely than white college-educated Americans to say they consider themselves a part of the Tea Party movement (13 percent vs. 10 percent).
      • Myth 2. White working-class Americans have abandoned traditional religiosity and a strong work ethic. White working-class Americans do not attend religious services less frequently than Americans overall (48 percent vs. 50 percent attend at least once a month), and do not report that religion is less important in their lives (60 percent vs. 59 percent say religion is important in their lives).  White working class Americans also work significantly more average hours per week than white college-educated Americans (51 vs. 46 hours per week).
      • Myth 3. White working-class Americans vote against their economic interests. Low-income white working-class Americans and white working-class Americans who have received food stamps within the last two years were significantly less likely than those who have not to support Romney, whose economic plan would reduce funding for government programs like food stamps.
      • Myth 4. White working-class Americans are animated by culture wars issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Half (50 percent) of white working-class Americans say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to 45% who say it should be illegal in all or most cases. And while half (50 percent) of white working-class Americans are opposed to allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, more than 4-in-10 (43 percent) favor same-sex marriage.
      • Myth 5. White working-class Americans embrace unfettered free market capitalism. Seven-in-ten (70 percent) white working-class Americans believe the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy, and a majority (53 percent) say that one of the biggest problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance in life.
Read the Topline Questionnaire, including the survey methodology, here.