A Reagan Democrat is a traditionally Democratic voter in the United States, referring especially to white working-class Rust Belt residents, who defected from their party to support Republican President Ronald Reagan in either or both of the 1980 and 1984 elections as well as Republican Presidents George H. W. Bush in the 1988 election and George W. Bush in either or both of the 2000 and 2004 elections. This group of voters also defected to Donald Trump, the Republican candidate in 2016, who won in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, all states that voted for Reagan but went Democratic in 2008 and 2012.
During the 1980 election a dramatic number of voters in the U.S., disillusioned with the economic 'malaise' of the 1970s and the presidency of Jimmy Carter (even more than, four years earlier, moderate Republican Gerald Ford), supported former California governor (and former Democrat) Ronald Reagan. Reagan's optimistic tone managed to win over a broad set of voters to an almost unprecedented degree (for a Republican since moderate war hero Eisenhower's victories in 1952 and 1956) across the board, but did not make particular demographic inroads with Democratic voters, with the possible exception of national security voters (a focused but relatively small group, difficult to find decisive empirical support for and identified in 1980 with Democrat Henry 'Scoop' Jackson, a Reagan ally for a brief period after 1980—until his death).
The term Reagan Democrat is sometimes 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 1984. He concluded that "Reagan Democrats" no longer saw the Democratic party 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, the same margin he won nationally. In 2016, however, Macomb County switched to Donald Trump.
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.'"
Reagan Democrats in the 1990s and into the 21st century
The demographic shift that Ronald Reagan tapped into continued into the 1990s after he left office. The Democrats responded with new themes. 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 campaigns 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 has 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."
Following the 2016 presidential election which saw many Rust Belt counties flip to Donald Trump, a Republican strategist said that the working-class "Reagan Democrats" who favored Trump in 2016 should now be called "Trump Republicans". Conversely, it has been suggested that Reagan Democrats did not necessarily swing the Rust Belt states in 2016, but rather that Democrat voters in those regions stayed home on election day.
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 traditionally 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'.
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