Wednesday, June 1, 2005

The Democratic Party, the self-proclaimed defender of the middle class, was trounced by Republicans among those voters in the 2004 election, according to a Democratic advocacy group that says the party faces “a crisis with the middle class.”

A report released yesterday by Third Way says support for Republicans begins at much lower income levels than researchers had expected: Among white voters, President Bush got a majority of support beginning at an income threshold of $23,300 — about $5,000 above the poverty level for a family of four.

The report says the economic gains of Hispanics have translated into strong Republican gains, as have economic strides across every category, save for black voters.

“As Americans become even modestly wealthier their affinity for Democrats apparently falls off. With middle income voters, it is Democrats — the self-described party of the middle class — who are running far behind Republicans, the oft-described party of the rich,” the report says.

Although Mr. Bush’s popular-vote margin of victory over Sen. John Kerry in 2004 was less than three percentage points, the Massachusetts Democrat lost the middle class — defined by the report as voters living in households with incomes between $30,000 and $75,000 — by six percentage points. Among white middle-class voters, the gap was 22 percentage points.

Voters from middle-class households made up 45 percent of the electorate last year, those making less than $30,000 constituted 23 percent of the vote, and households above $75,000 accounted for 32 percent of the vote. The median income among the voters was $54,348.

Polls show that voters identify the Democratic Party as the party of the middle class and that Democrats beat Republicans on middle-class issues such as jobs, health care and education, but that hasn’t translated into votes, said Jim Kessler, policy director for Third Way, which was created after the 2004 election with the goal of “modernizing the progressive cause.”

“Middle-class voters think Democrats care about issues they care about, but they don’t care about the middle-class voter as much as they care about other voters — that they’re No. 4 or 5 on the priority list,” Mr. Kessler said. Put another way, he said, “they think Democrats care about somebody else’s schools, health care, jobs.”

The report showed that Democrats continue to do well among black voters, and that did not change with income or education levels. But those findings “masked the deficit they faced with the remaining middle class,” Mr. Kessler said.

A spokesman for the Democratic National Committee didn’t return calls for comment. Sarah Feinberg, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said House Democrats plan to push for middle-class voters in the 2006 election cycle.

“Democrats are certainly going to be working to talk to middle-class voters and to make sure middle-class voters understand that their priorities are our priorities,” she said, pointing to polls that show voters concerned about rising gasoline prices and access to affordable health care.

She said Congress instead has focused on business-friendly measures such as class-action lawsuits and bankruptcy reform.

“One of the main things we’ve been talking about this election cycle is the fact that the Republican leadership and the Republican Congress are very out of step with middle-class families, and almost everything in this country,” she said.

Many in the Democratic Party, particularly among those on the left, say there are no policy lessons to be learned from the 2004 election, that the party failed to get out its message and that it was overshadowed by a strong president at war. But centrist Democrats have continued to argue that the party may be in bigger danger than many loyalists think.

This month’s issue of Blueprint, a magazine published by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, has several articles looking at statistics similar to Third Way’s income data, such as Mr. Kerry’s losing married parents of young children by 19 percentage points, taking 40 percent of the group compared with Mr. Bush’s 59 percent. Those parents made up 28 percent of the electorate.

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