I’ve been asked to speak to a group in Mount Clemens today about the difference between Republicans and Democrats. That may sound easy to answer, but it’s not.
To an extent, however, the difference is easier to define than fifty years ago. Today, the split is largely ideological. Back then, the differences were, to a large extent, hereditary and economic. Voters in blue-collar, working-class areas like Warren or Flint voted overwhelmingly Democratic.
White- collar and academic areas like Birmingham and even Ann Arbor, believe it or not, voted overwhelmingly for Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy.
My own father, who was one step up from poor, voted Republican partly because he had grown up in the South and hated the then-racist policies of that region’s Democrats.
When he became governor, he championed environmental causes, women’s issues, and state aid to Detroit – all things anathema to most Republicans today. Ten years or so ago, I asked him why he just didn’t switch parties. He had virtually nothing in common any more with the Republicans and usually votes for Democratic presidential candidates.
But he told me he was going to keep trying to pull his party back to the sensible center. I have to say I admire that. But he hasn’t had much success. Will Rogers always said he was a member of no organized political party; he was a Democrat. What that meant was that Democrats were a set of factions like African-Americans and labor union members who might not like each other very much, but hated Republicans more.
Republicans were seen as ethnically and socially homogenous, and there is still some truth in both descriptions. But in other ways, things have shifted dramatically.
White, blue-collar workers who were once the staunchest Democrats voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. Educated women professionals who voted for Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford now vote Democratic.
The two closest presidential elections in modern Michigan history were Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton, and Kennedy’s over Nixon in 1960. When Kennedy beat Nixon, working-class Macomb County gave him 63 percent of the vote, and most of his statewide margin.
White-collar Oakland was solidly behind Nixon. Two years ago, Trump won Macomb County by more than four times as many votes as he won the entire state. But Hillary Clinton won educated, upscale Oakland County decisively. And while economics are still a factor, so is education. Voters with more than a bachelor’s degree are more and more Democratic.
What does that mean for the future? Democrats have to find a way to woo the white male ethnic voters they’ve lost. But as minority populations increase nationally, Republicans are going to be in trouble if they don’t moderate their message on immigration.
Trump won the last election. But while he carried Hispanic-heavy states like Texas and Arizona, his margins were far smaller than Mitt Romney’s had been.
How will things play out this fall?
The Democratic nominee better find a way of reaching blue-collar men. And the Republican needs to win back women.
We’ll know who did a better job the day after the November election.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.