Reagan Democrat is an American political term used by analysts to denote traditionally Democratic voters, especially white working-class Northerners, who defected from their party to support Republican President Ronald Reagan in both the 1980 and 1984 elections. It is also used to refer to the smaller but still substantial number of Democrats who voted for George H. W. Bush in the 1988 election.
The term can also be used to describe moderate Democrats who are more conservative than liberal on certain issues like national security and immigration. The term Reagan Democrat also refers to the vast sway that Reagan held over the House of Representatives during his presidency, even though the house had a Democratic majority during both of his terms. The term also hearkens back to Richard Nixon's Silent Majority; a concept that Ronald Reagan himself used during his political campaigns in the 1970s.
The work of Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg is a classic study of Reagan Democrats. Greenberg analyzed white ethnic voters (largely unionized auto workers) in Macomb County, Michigan, just north of Detroit. The county voted 63 percent for John F. Kennedy in 1960, but 66 percent for Reagan in 1980. He concluded that "Reagan Democrats" no longer saw Democrats as champions of their working class aspirations, but instead saw them as working primarily for the benefit of others: the very poor, feminists, the unemployed, African Americans, Latinos, and other groups. In addition, Reagan Democrats enjoyed gains during the period of economic prosperity that coincided with the Reagan administration following the "malaise" of the Carter administration. They also supported Reagan's strong stance on national security and opposed the 1980s Democratic Party on such issues as pornography, crime, and high taxes.
Greenberg periodically revisited the voters of Macomb County as a barometer of public opinion until he conducted a 2008 exit poll that found "nearly 60 percent" of Macomb County voters were "'comfortable' with Mr. Obama," drawing the conclusion that Macomb County had "become normal and uninteresting" and "illustrates America's evolving relationship with race." As such, Greenberg stated in an op-ed for the New York Times that, "I’m finished with the Reagan Democrats of Macomb County in suburban Detroit after making a career of spotlighting their middle-class anger and frustrations about race and Democratic politicians." Obama ultimately won Macomb County by a comfortable 53-45% margin that year.
Reagan biographer Craig Shirley also wrote extensively about Reagan democrats. His 1980 election account "Rendezvous with Destiny" clearly distinguishes the appearance of blue-collar crossovers for Reagan during the 1980 Wisconsin primaries at a Reagan event in Milwaukee's "ethnic Mecca" Serb Hall: "A young Democrat, Robert Ponasik, stood on a chair furiously waving a handmade sign that proclaimed, 'Cross Over for Reagan.' Of the reaction to Reagan in Serb Hall, Lynn Sherr of ABC reported, 'In judging from the way they showed up at a long-time Democratic meeting hall . . . a large number of blue-collar voters could go for Reagan.'"
Shirley indicates that Reagan democrats were primarily "immigrants and first-and second-generation Serbs, Poles, Czechs, Russians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and others who had escaped Stalin or Hitler and consequently were intensely anti-Communist and antisocialist" and not "interested in being dependent upon government." He underlines that these fresh immigrants "could or should have been Republicans" but were not, "largely because the snobby Republicans didn’t want them," which is what on previous occasions drove them to Democrats "voting for Adlai Stevenson, LBJ, and in 1968, 'Happy Warrior' Hubert Humphrey."
Reagan Democrats in the 1990s and into the 21st Century
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The demographic shift that Ronald Reagan tapped into continued into the 1990s after he left office. This is evidenced by the rise of Bill Clinton to the presidency during the 1992 presidential election. In that campaign, candidate Clinton billed himself as "a different kind of Democrat" and forswore many older Democratic policies in favor of centrist Third Way policies that were championed by the Democratic Leadership Council in hopes of reconnecting with many working class voters who had begun to vote Republican in presidential campaign since 1968—the Silent Majority of Nixon and the Reagan Democrats.
Many self-styled Reagan Democrats claim to be fiscal conservatives but still support many aspects of the core programs of the New Deal and the Great Society, while also supporting Ronald Reagan’s strong defense policies as well as his optimism in American culture. Some elements of the Tea Party fit this sketch, but many other independents and Democrats could fall into the same category as well. It’s become a broad term, but that does not diminish the explanatory power behind it. One of the most prominent self-styled Reagan Democrats includes Virginia Senator Jim Webb, whom columnist David Paul Kuhn asserts is the quintessential Reagan Democrat and one of the last of an 'endangered species' within the Democratic Party.
Conservative commentator George Will, noting the long-term movements of partisanship, said in 2012 that: "White voters without college education—economically anxious and culturally conservative—were called "Reagan Democrats" when they were considered only seasonal Republicans because of Ronald Reagan. Today they are called the Republican base." In 2007 Hardy Parkerson, a politically active lawyer from Lake Charles, Louisiana, ran for governor of Louisiana, calling himself a "Ronald Reagan Democrat"; but in that race the present Republican governor Bobby Jindal (2008-2016) beat all twelve (12) of his opponents, including Parkerson. During the campaign, when Parkerson could find a "soapbox" or "stump", he'd exclaim that, "Reagan was really a Democrat at heart!", and he drew standing ovations; but the old "Huey P./Earl K. Long" type of campaigning, he learned, was a thing of the past.
Similar concepts internationally
The term Reagan Democrat remains part of the lexicon in American political jargon, because of Reagan's continued widespread popularity among a large segment of the electorate. Moreover, its definition is fairly well understood by many, and can be easily used in day-to-day conversations or throwaway commentary, as well as academic journals and publications.
- In the United Kingdom, the term Essex man can be used to describe a similar group of usually Labour-voting working-class voters who switched to voting for Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives in the 1980s, thanks to her right to buy scheme in particular.
- In Australia, the term "Howard battler" was used to refer to suburban, working class and traditionally Labor voters who shifted to the John Howard led Liberal Party in the mid 90s and carried the conservatives into victory for the first time since Malcolm Fraser.
- In New Zealand, political columnist Chris Trotter has theorised about the emergence of "Waitakere Man", a traditionally blue-collar constituency who he believes switched their votes to National Party leader John Key in the 2008 elections on the premises of 'ambition' and 'aspiration', and supposedly also represent a backlash against 'political correctness gone mad'.
- Crossing the floor
- Cold War liberal
- Democratic and liberal support for John McCain in 2008
- Forgotten man
- Party switching in the United States
- Republican and conservative support for Barack Obama in 2008
- Silent majority
- Swing voter
- Third Way
- Greenberg (1996)
- Greenberg, Stanley B. (November 11, 2008). "Goodbye, Reagan Democrats". The New York Times.
- Shirley, Craig (2009). Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America. Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books. p. 233. ISBN 978-1-933859-55-2.
- "The Making of the New Democrats."
- George F. Will, "Suddenly, a fun candidate," Washington Post, January 4, 2012
- Fairfax, Anthony Edward (2005). The Democratic Trend Phenomena: The Predictability of the Democratic Vote for President. Hampton, VA: MediaChannel. ISBN 0-9752546-1-8.
- Gainsborough, Juliet F. (2001). Fenced Off: The Suburbanization of American Politics. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press. ISBN 0-87840-830-4.
- Greenberg, Stanley B. (1996). Middle Class Dreams: Politics and Power of the New American Majority. New York: Times Books. ISBN 0-8129-2345-6.
- Greenberg, Stanley B. (2004). The Two Americas: Our Current Political Deadlock and how to Break it. New York: Thomas Dunne Books. ISBN 0-312-31838-3.
- Judis, John B. (2004). The Emerging Democratic Majority. New York: Scribner. ISBN 0-7432-2691-7.
- Teixeira, Ruy A.; Rogers, Joel (2001). America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-08398-6.
- Return to Macomb County - Democratic Defection Revisited, by Stan Greenberg, April 01, 1987
- From Crisis to Working Majority, by Stan Greenberg, September 21, 1991
- Back To Macomb: Reagan Democrats and Barack Obama, by Stan Greenberg, James Carville, Andrew Baumann, Karl Agne, and Jesse Contario, August 25, 2008
- Burden and Kimball (2002). Why Americans Split Their Tickets: Campaign, Competition, and Divided Government. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.
- Douthat and Salam (2008). Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. New York City, NY: Doubleday.
- Greenberg, Stanley B. (November 11, 2008). "Goodbye, Reagan Democrats". The New York Times.
- Moore, Jonathan (1986). Campaign For President: The Managers Look at ’84. Dover, MA: Auburn House Publishing.
- Schoen, Douglas (2008). Declaring Independence. New York City, NY: Random House.
- Steed, Moreland, and Baker (1986). The 1984 Presidential Election in the South: Patterns of the Southern Party Politics. New York City, NY: Praeger Publishers.
- Texieria, Ruy (2008). Red, Blue, & Purple America: The Future of Election Demographics. Washington, DC: Brooking Institution Press.