campaign desk

Edwards As Working-Class Hero?

The polls don’t support the press’s narrative
May 15, 2008

The press is playing John Edwards’s endorsement of Barack Obama as giving the presumptive Democratic nominee a boost in attracting those elusive white working-class voters.

The New York Times says Edwards’s decision offers Obama “potential help in his efforts to win over working-class white voters in the general election.”

The Chicago Tribune calls the Edwards endorsement “an effort to transfer his appeal among white, working-class voters to a Democratic front-runner who has struggled to win them over.”

The Boston Globe says the news gives Obama “a symbolic lift as he courts working-class white voters.”

And The Washington Post notes that working-class white voters were “at the heart of Edwards’s candidacy.”

But hold on. A look at the entrance and exit polls in the nominating contests where Edwards competed doesn’t support the notion that his supporters are working class.

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In Iowa, entrance polls didn’t ask about educational levels, which is how working class has generally been defined this primary season. But they did ask about income. And Edwards’s best income demographic was those making over $100,000 a year—the richest group. His second- and third-best performances were among those making $50,000-$75,000 a year and $75,000-$100,000 a year. His three worst showings came among the three groups making less than $50,000 a year.

New Hampshire’s results are slightly more mixed, but they still don’t offer support for the idea of Edwards as a working-class hero. Edwards performed just as well with college-educated voters as with non-college-educated voters. Looking again at income, his strongest performances were with voters making $50,000-$75,000 a year or $75,000-$100,000 a year. He did as well with voters making above $100,000 as with voters making below $50,000.

And in South Carolina, his best performance by education level was among those with a post-graduate degree. And he did better among voters with a college degree than those without. In terms of income, by far Edwards’s best result was with voters who made more than $200,000 a year.

(Edwards won only 4 percent of the vote in Nevada, which means that the sample size is too small to draw meaningful inferences about the makeup of his support.)

The root of the problem here is the press’s obsession with style and image—and simple, clear narratives—at the expense of substance and evidence and complexity. Throughout his campaign, Edwards reminded anyone who would listen that he grew up the son of a mill worker, and his campaign rhetoric was squarely focused on the economic struggles of ordinary working Americans. Apparently, that was enough to make many in the press assume that his supporters were working class—even in the face of empirical data suggesting a much more complicated picture.

Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.