In 2008, the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner described Macomb County, Michigan—home to the bellwether suburbs north of Detroit—as “90 percent white, half Catholic, 40 percent union families, one third over 60.” Macomb was once the most Democratic suburb in the country, giving LBJ 75 percent of the vote in 1964, but it swung sharply to Republicans in the 1980s and has been a pivotal swing county in the state ever since. Gore won it by two, Kerry lost it by one and Obama won it by eight.
The archetypal “Reagan Democrats” make up a fifth of Macomb’s electorate. These blue-collar, non–college-educated white voters abandoned the Democratic Party in the ’70s and ’80s, out of anger at Democratic support for policies like welfare and affirmative action, and leapt into the outstretched arms of Ronald Reagan, who won Macomb County by thirty-three points in 1984. They’ve been an important part of the GOP coalition ever since. “In the 2008 Michigan primary,” wrote National Journal’s Ron Brownstein, “57 percent of GOP voters lacked a college education and 75 percent earned less than $100,000 annually.”
It’s become conventional wisdom to suggest that Rick Santorum, with his blue-collar background in Pennsylvania, will run strongly among these voters. “He has a big appeal to people we used to call Reagan Democrats,” said former Ohio Senator Mike DeWine. A recent Gallup poll showed Santorum leading Mitt Romney by double digits among Republicans without a college degree and making less than $90,000. Romney’s unfavorable rating among voters making less than $50,000 jumped twenty points in January, which Greg Sargent termed “Romney’s White Working Class Problem.”
Yet these national poll numbers haven’t translated to an advantage for Santorum in Michigan or the other states that have voted so far (there’s no exit poll data for Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, where Santorum won). “Santorum’s performance doesn’t show much more variation by income,” notes Brownstein. “In Iowa, his share of the vote rose steadily with income.”
Romney narrowly leads Santorum in the latest Michigan polling. In an NBC/Marist poll, they are tied among voters making less than $75,000, but Romney is up five among voters making more. Romney leads by two among those without a college degree and by one among those who’ve graduated college. “There’s lots of evidence that Reagan Democrats have pulled back from Romney,” says Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who has studied this group of voters for three decades. “But we don’t know yet whether they’ll embrace Santorum. They do not really know him, though conservative pundits think he will have more of a working class appeal than Romney. Could be true—but only because Romney went Wall Street.”