It's a truism in American politics that President Obama has a hard time appealing to white working-class voters, the assumption being that whether you support or oppose the president is a function of race and class (and, to a lesser degree, geography, since Southerners are less likely to vote for Obama).
But this demographic view of voting behavior, while not entirely wrong, fails to capture the nature of support for Obama among whites, and misses a crucial dynamic among the electorate more broadly. To a large extent, it is not class or education that explains political preferences. It is personality; specifically, the degree to which white voters believe in order and hierarchy. In fact, it turns out that plenty of less well-educated whites who tolerate ambiguity and disdain hierarchy are highly supportive of the president. Conversely, many well-off, college-educated whites who dislike ambiguity and embrace hierarchy oppose the president.
How do we know this? For the past two decades, pollsters have been asking people what values they think are most important to instill in children. Is it more important for kids to develop a sense of independence or to respect their elders? To be curious or to display good manners? As we spelled out in our book, "Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics," studies have repeatedly shown that answers to child-rearing questions reflect fundamental personality differences that, in turn, have become perhaps the most important explanation for our polarized politics.
These personality differences tell us who supports gay marriage and who doesn’t, who favors immigration and "amnesty" and who opposes them, as well as differences on a host of other issues. Individuals who cherish independence and curiosity tend overwhelmingly to be authority questioning, whereas those who most value respect for elders and good manners tend to place a premium on order and hierarchy. White respondents’ answers to these questions illuminate powerfully their views about politics. It turns out that whether white Americans support Obama or not, vote Democratic or Republican, has more to do with how they think about raising children than with their socioeconomic status.
To flesh this out, we looked at data from two different election cycles: 2008 and 2010. The results were striking. In 2008, among whites voters, those most comfortable with questioning authority supported Obama by more than 3-to-1, while those more disposed toward authority and order preferred Sen. McCain by a 2-to-1 margin. Among whites with a high-school education or less who were most authority questioning, however, 76 percent supported Obama, whereas among college-educated but authority-minded whites, only 18 percent supported the future president.
Data from the 2010 midterm elections reveal the same picture. Again, about 75 percent of the most authority-questioning voters cast ballots for Democratic House candidates. By contrast, more than three-quarters of those placing the highest value on authority voted Republican. As in 2008, personality trumped education levels in explaining partisan voting. Among whites with at least a college degree and who scored low in authority-mindedness, more than 90 percent voted for Democratic candidates. But, if those same highly educated whites were predisposed to be authority-minded, 80 percent voted for Republican candidates.
The same basic story holds when we look at income. In fact, there is no difference in support for President Obama among white voters who differ in income but share the same personality type. Low-income whites who say they want kids to question authority are as supportive of President Obama as high-income whites with the same psychological disposition. Conversely, high-income whites who prefer order and authority feel just as negatively toward the president as do low-income whites with the same personality type. To be crystal clear, neither income nor education explains white political preferences as well as how people think about raising kids.
Why does this matter? There is a strong tendency in American politics, extending back 30 years or more, to view all white working-class voters as cut from the same cloth - uniformly predisposed to social conservatism and uncomfortable with cultural change. Then Sen. Obama was himself guilty of this sort of reductionism in 2008 when he made comments about bitter working-class voters clinging to their guns and religion. This cohort is said to have been especially uneasy with a biracial president who embodies a complex and changing world. But this isn’t really a problem for white working-class voters as such. Instead, it’s a function of the same broader dynamic that has divided the parties over the past generation and has contributed to such stark political polarization. Our political chasm is defined as much as ever by fundamental personality differences among the parties’ base voters. The white working-class meme, while true to a point – because less-educated whites do tend to be more authority-minded - obscures the deeper realities of our political divide. It’s not socioeconomic status, per se, that explains white voters’ political preferences. It’s personality type. White voters who believe, first and foremost, that children should obey authority don’t dislike Obama simply because they disagree with his policy positions. They reject his entire perceived outlook on the world. Whether they are rich or poor, educated or not, has relatively little effect on that reality. Pundits should have a clearer understanding of this fundamental truth as they take stock of the presidential campaign in its closing weeks.