TURNER, Maine — In the summer of 1971, looking ahead to his reelection campaign, Richard Nixon worked out a semi-clandestine "blue-collar strategy" for attracting votes. The president instructed Jerome Rosow of the Department of Labor to draw up what was, until a copy fell into the hands of the Wall Street Journal, a confidential report on the subject. "President Nixon has before him a confidential blueprint," a Journal reporter wrote about the effort, "designed to help him capture the hearts and votes of the nation's white working men -- the traditionally Democratic 'forgotten Americans' that the administration believes are ripe for political plucking." According to his close advisor, H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's plan was to build an image as "a tough, courageous, masculine leader."
Blue-collar voters had been written off by the Republicans for decades until Nixon realized their political worth. His strategy worked. In 1968, 35% of manual laborers voted for Nixon; in 1972, he pulled 57% of their votes. Union voters followed a similar pattern, with 29% voting for him in 1968 and 54% voting for him in 1972. Nixon won not by promising the blue-collar voter -- as the Democrats did -- economic changes that would benefit them, but rather by simply recognizing their distress and decrying how they had been ignored for too long.
This strategy is now being retooled by President Bush and his advisors, who hope to make the Republican Party appealing to a new generation of blue-collar voters. Such voters are still a crucial segment of the electorate. As Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers note in their book, "America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters," voters without college degrees (some 55% of the total electorate) are the real swing vote in America. "Their loyalties shift the most from election to election and in so doing determine the winners in American politics." Known by the nickname "NASCAR Dads," these new targeted voters tend to be "lower- or middle-class men who once voted Democratic but who now favor Republicans." Many live in rural areas and are racing car fans (hence the nickname). And many of them voted for Bush in 2000.
As Nixon did, Bush is appealing to the emotions of male blue-collar voters while doing little for them. He has tossed them a few bones, like tax breaks on pensions and tariffs on imported steel. Bush wants them, of course. But why would they want him? Since Bush took office in 2000, the United States has had a net loss of 2.7 million jobs, the vast majority of them in manufacturing. Though this cannot be blamed entirely on Bush, his bleed-'em-dry approach to the non-Pentagon parts of the government has meant he's offered little in the way of help to blue-collar workers wanting to learn new trades or find affordable housing.
The loosening of Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations has made plants less safe. Bush's agricultural polices favor agribusiness and have put many small- and medium-sized farms into bankruptcy. His tax cuts are creating state budget shortfalls, which will hit the public schools that blue-collar children attend and erode what services they now get. Laxer standards in nursing homes have meant worse care for the elderly parents of NASCAR dads. The invasion of Iraq has disproportionately sent the children and grandchildren of blue-collar families to the front.
Bush's brand of emotional politics has obscured these issues. Although the president is sinking overall in the polls, the sector of American society now best positioned to keep him in the White House is the one that stands to lose the most from his policies -- blue-collar men. A January Roper poll found that blue-collar workers were significantly more supportive of Bush than professionals and managers. A full 49% of blue-collar men and 38% of blue-collar women told Roper that they would vote for Bush in 2004. Those men and women who had dropped out of high school or graduated but not gone to college were more pro-Bush (41%) than people with graduate degrees (36%). And people with family incomes of $30,000 or less were no more opposed to Bush than those with incomes of $75,000 or more.
In one question the Roper pollsters asked: "Do you think this tax plan benefits mainly the rich or benefits everyone?" Though two-thirds of the poorest men surveyed said that they think the plan primarily helps the wealthy, 56% of those same respondents nonetheless favored the plan.