Greenberg’s analysis and the CNN poll data suggest that the shift to “middle-class populism” has the potential to win votes among a key target constituency, white people without college degrees.
Middle-class populism, however, raises a host of problems for the Democratic Party. When the middle-class populist message is turned into actual legislative proposals, the costs, in the form of higher taxes, will be imposed on the affluent. Such a shift in the allocation of government resources threatens the loyalty of a crucial Democratic constituency: well-off socially liberal voters.
Over the past two decades, the Democratic Party has successfully won over – or perhaps it’s better said that the Republican Party has lost – many well-educated, well-paid, fiscally moderate men and women. These voters are repelled by a social conservatism that is anti-abortion, anti-gay rights and anti-women’s rights. But they are not eager to see their taxes raised.
In 1992, Bill Clinton lost the most affluent segment of the electorate, voters with household incomes over $75,000, by 12 points. In 2008, Obama lost voters with household incomes from $100,000 to $200,000 by 2 points, 50-48, and actually carried voters making over $200,000, 52-46.
Even more significant: In 1992, voters from households making from $15,000 to $75,000 a year – a very rough estimate of the working and middle class – made up 74 percent of the electorate. By 2012, voters from households making $30,000 to $100,000 (again, a rough estimate of the working and middle class) made up 52 percent of the electorate. By 2012, nearly three of every 10 voters, 28 percent, came from households making in excess of $100,000, the upper middle class and beyond.
In other words, the size of the target constituency for a political strategy emphasizing middle-class populism has grown substantially smaller, while the size of the affluent voting population that would bear many of the costs of financing the new populism has grown larger.