August 22, 2012

The Lost Decade of the Middle Class

Chapter 5: Middle-class Politics

A somewhat larger share of middle-class adults believe that the policies of President Obama will help the middle class than say the same about the policies of Republican hopeful Mitt Romney, according to the Pew Research survey.

The survey also finds a much wider gap in perceptions about which party favors the rich—62% of middle-class adults say Republicans do, while just 16% say Democrats do. But neither party is seen as being the champion of the middle class. Slightly more than one-third of middle-class adults (37%) believe Democrats primarily favor their interests, while a smaller share (26%) says the same about the GOP.

The survey of 2,508 adults, including 1,287 who described themselves as members of the middle class, was conducted in late July. Interviewing for the survey ended nearly three weeks before Romney selected Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to be his running mate and a month before the GOP convention was to convene in Tampa.

According to the survey, about half (52%) of middle-class adults say the president’s policies would help middle-class Americans if he is elected to a second term in November. When asked about Romney’s policies, a somewhat smaller share (42%) says his policies would help the middle class.

Attitudes toward Obama and Romney among the upper and lower classes are similar to those of middle-class adults. About half of those in the upper class (52%) and a similar proportion of those in the lower class (49%) say Obama’s policies would benefit the middle class. Similar shares of the upper (46%) and middle class (42%) believe Romney’s politics would help middle-class Americans, while a smaller share of the lower class (34%) holds this view.

Attitudes on the two presidential contenders diverge when the middle class is asked to evaluate whether Obama and Romney’s programs would help the wealthy or the poor. Fully 71% of the middle class say Romney’s policies would benefit the rich, while 38% offered the same view of Obama’s programs. At the same time, six-in-ten middle-class adults (62%) say the president’s policies would help the poor, while only a third (33%) say the same about Romney’s policies.

Perceptions of the Parties

Judgments about Romney and Obama mirror the views of middle-class Americans toward the Republican and Democratic parties.

According to the survey, only about a quarter to a third of the middle class says that the Republicans (26%) or Democrats (37%) primarily favor middle-class interests over those of the rich or poor. Republicans are perceived as the party of the rich, while the middle class is divided over whether the Democratic Party is more concerned about their needs or those of the poor.

To examine the intersection of social class and politics, the Pew Research survey asked respondents if each of the two major political parties “favors the rich, favors the middle class or favors the poor.”

Overall, the middle class was somewhat more likely to say that the Democratic Party rather than the GOP favored its interests (37% vs. 26%). 13 But about as many say the Democrats favor the poor (34%), and 16% believe the party favors the rich.

At the same time about six-in-ten middle-class adults (62%) say the GOP favors the rich—

roughly double the 26% who say the Republican Party primarily favors middle-class Americans.

The survey also found that the middle class is politically diverse: Roughly equal shares of middle-class adults identify with the Democratic Party (34%) or say they are independents (35%), while somewhat fewer align with the Republican Party (25%). As a group, middle-class adults are more likely to identify themselves as political conservatives (39%) than liberals (22%). About a third (35%) say they are moderates.

On other political issues, the survey found that a majority of middle-class adults (55%) have no opinion when asked if they disagree or agree with the Tea Party movement. Only 15% agree with its objectives, while nearly twice as many disagree (27%).

The remainder of this chapter examines these findings in more detail. The first section examines which political party is seen by core demographic groups in the middle class as favoring the rich, the poor and the middle class. The second section analyzes middle-class perceptions of the Tea Party movement. The final section examines the demographic characteristics of middle-class adults who identify with the Republican and Democratic parties.

Viewing the Parties through a Partisan Lens

The increasingly polarized political landscape is vividly reflected in how Republicans and Democrats view the two parties. Members of the middle class who identify themselves as Republicans are more likely than Democrats to see the GOP as the party of the middle class and the Democrats as the party of the poor.

In contrast, Democrats are much more likely to see their party representing the interests of the middle class and the GOP as the party of the rich.

For example, more than nine-in-ten Democrats (94%) see the GOP as the party of the rich—roughly four times the proportion of Republicans who express that view (22%). In contrast, a plurality of all Republicans (49%) say that the Democratic Party favors the poor, a view shared by 26% of Democrats.

On the rich-poor divide, the views of political independents more closely align with Democrats on some issues but with Republicans on others. A majority of independents (63%) agree with the Democrats that the GOP is the party of the rich. Independents also are about as likely as Democrats to say the Democratic Party favors the poor (32% vs. 26%). But unlike a majority of Democrats, only 30% of middle-class independents say the Democratic Party favors the middle class.

The Partisan Fight for the Middle Class

Middle-class Republicans and Democrats both say their party favors the middle class. Six-in-ten Republicans (59%) say their party represents the middle class, but only 3% of Democrats agree. In contrast, about six-in-ten Democrats say their party favors the middle class—roughly five times the proportion of Republicans who say this (64% vs. 13%).

Most political independents reject both partisan claims. Only 30% of independents say the Democratic Party favors the middle class. At the same time, about a quarter (23%) say Republicans are more aligned with the middle class than with the rich or poor.

Political ideology also is strongly correlated with views of the two parties. Middle-class conservatives divide equally: 42% say the GOP favors the rich, while an identical proportion say the party favors the middle class.

In contrast, about eight-in-ten liberals (82%) say Republicans are the party of the wealthy, but only 8% say the GOP champions the middle class. Views of moderates fall between those of conservatives and liberals: fully 72% say the GOP represents the interests of the rich, while 20% say its primary focus is the middle class.

When the lens shifts to the Democratic Party, the views of conservatives and liberals move in predictable directions. About half of liberals (55%), and 25% of conservatives, say the Democrats favor the middle class. The views of moderates again fall between those of liberals and conservatives: 42% say the Democratic Party favors the middle class.

Other demographic groups differ in their perceptions of the two parties, though in most instances these differences reflect the different partisan makeup of the groups. 14 Among the more significant differences:

Race: Middle-class whites are significantly less likely than minorities to see the Republican Party as favoring the wealthy. Roughly nine-in-ten blacks (87%) and 69% of Hispanics say the GOP generally supports the rich, a view shared by 56% of all whites. When the focus shifts to the Democratic Party, middle-class whites and Hispanics also are more likely than blacks to say the Democrats favors the wealthy (18% and 19%, respectively, vs. 7%).

Blacks and Hispanics are significantly more likely than whites to see the Democratic Party as the party of the middle class. About half of all blacks (49%) and 44% of Hispanics say the Democrats favor the middle class, compared with 33% of whites. That pattern reverses when respondents are asked about the Republican Party: Whites (31%) are more likely than blacks (7%) or Hispanics (14%) to say Republicans favor the middle class.

Middle-class Hispanics are significantly less likely than whites to say the Democrats represent the interests of the poor (22% vs. 38% for whites and 31% for blacks). The Republican Party is viewed as favoring the poor by a slightly larger share of Hispanics (7%) than whites (2%) or blacks (1%).

Age: About two-thirds (68%) of middle-class adults younger than 50 years old believe the Republicans are the party of the rich, a view shared by 55% of those 50 and older. Younger adults also are more likely than those 50 and older to say that the Democratic Party favors the middle class (42% vs. 32%).

Gender: Roughly equal proportions of men (58%) and women (64%) say the Republican Party favors the rich. The Democratic Party is more likely to be seen as the party of the rich by men (20%) than by women (14%). There are no statistically significant differences in the views of men and women on their views of which party favors the middle class.

Education: Two-thirds of college graduates (66%) and 58% of adults with a high school degree or less say the Republicans favor the wealthy class. When respondents are asked about the Democratic Party, a quarter (25%) of less well-educated respondents say the Democrats, favor the rich compared with just 10% of college graduates.

The Tea Party

Most middle-class Americans have no fixed view of the Tea Party, the anti-tax, anti-government grassroots political movement that rose to prominence after the 2008 elections. When asked in the survey whether they agreed, disagreed or had no opinion of the Tea Party, a majority (55%) expresses no firm view.

Even though the Tea Party has played a crucial role in the Republican presidential primaries and other high-profile contests in recent years, about six-in-ten Republicans (57%) say they have no opinion, as do 48% of Democrats.

It’s not that Americans are unaware of the Tea Party movement. Only 2% of those surveyed say they have not heard about the Tea Party.

Among the 42% of the middle class who offer a judgment of the Tea Party movement, attitudes tilt negative. About a quarter (27%) say they disagree with the Tea Party, while 15% agree with it.

Unsurprisingly, Republicans and political conservatives are the most positive toward the Tea Party, while Democrats and liberals are the most negative. About a third (32%) of Republicans say they agree with the Tea Party, compared with only 3% of Democrats.

Among conservatives, about a quarter (25%) support the Tea Party, compared with 11% of all moderates and 5% of liberals. In contrast, 45% of liberals and 35% of moderates disagree with the Tea Party.

Registered voters are more likely than those who are not registered to have an opinion of the Tea Party. Among registered voters with views of the movement, 18% agree and 30% disagree. Only 4% of those not registered to vote agree with the Tea Party and 17% disagree.

Party and Ideology

While both parties present themselves as champions of the middle class, neither has closed the deal with a majority of the middle class itself.

Only about a third of all middle-class adults identify with the Democratic Party (34%), while a smaller share are Republicans (25%). About a third (35%) say they are independents. These breakdowns are virtually identical to the partisan divisions among all adults.

Among the middle class, whites are more likely than minorities to identify with the Republican Party. A third of whites (33%) but only 9% of Hispanics and 1% of blacks say they are Republicans.

Minorities and particularly blacks remain among the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituencies. Fully two-thirds of all blacks (66%) and 41% of Hispanics identify themselves as Democrats, compared with 27% of whites.

Men in the middle class are more likely than women to identify themselves as political independents (41% vs. 29%). At the same time, women are more likely to be Democrats (40% vs. 28%). About a quarter of men and women say they are Republicans.

About four-in-ten Hispanics and adults younger than 30 (42% for both) say they are political independents, compared with 28% of blacks and 26% of those ages 65 and older.

As a group, the middle class is more likely to identify themselves as conservatives (39%) than to say they are liberals (22%). An additional 35% identify themselves as moderates.

Republicans are more likely to be conservative (71%) than Democrats (25%) or independents (33%). In contrast, Democrats are more likely to be liberal (35%) than Republicans (7%) or independents (20%).

A larger share of moderates are independents or Democrats than identify with the Republican Party. About four-in-ten moderates (42%) are independents, and about the same share are Democrats (37%). In contrast, less than half those proportions are Republican (16%).

Cite this publication: . “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (August 22, 2012) http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/08/22/the-lost-decade-of-the-middle-class/, accessed on July 23, 2014.

  1. Except where noted in the text, survey results reported in this chapter are based on the whole sample of self-described middle-class adults and not the 82% who also said they were registered to vote. On most key questions there was little or no significant difference between results based on all middle-class adults and those who were registered to vote.
  2. For example, about nine-in-ten middle-class blacks (87%) but only 56% of whites say the GOP favors the rich, a difference of 31 percentage points. But blacks are disproportionately Democrats, and this gap vanishes when the analysis controls for the respondent’s party: 95% of white Democrats and 97% of black Democrats say the Republican Party favors the wealthy.