On Energy Prices, The Working Class Blames Washington

On Energy Prices, The Working Class Blames Washington
July 31, 2014

Benjamin Domenech

Benjamin Domenech (bdomenech@heartland.org) is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute. Domenech... (read full bio)

This Molly Ball piece on the metric which best determines the outcome of elections makes for a fascinating read: essentially, it demonstrates that when Republicans don’t lose the working class by a wide margin, they do well, and when they lose it by 20 points, they don’t. Throw out all the other measures of race and religion – and Republicans even spot the Democrats the ten points! – and the share of the working class vote determines the outcome:

Republicans consistently win voters making $50,000 or more, approximately the U.S. median income. The margin doesn’t vary too much: In 2012, Mitt Romney got 53 percent of this group’s vote; in 2010, Republican House candidates got 55 percent. And Democrats consistently win voters making less than the median—but the margin varies widely. In fact, whether Democrats win these voters by a 10-point or a 20-point margin tells you who won every national election for the past decade.

In 2004, Democrats won the working-class vote by 11 points; George W. Bush was reelected. In 2006, Democrats won the working-class vote by 22 points and took the House and Senate. In 2008, Democrats won by 22 points again, and President Obama was elected. In 2010, the margin narrowed to 11 points, and Republicans took the House back. In 2012, Obama was reelected—on the strength of another 22-point margin among voters making under $50,000.

One of the central arguments that I and those who share my view that the future of the right ought to be more populist, as both a matter of policy and politics, is that Washington has largely ignored the increased burdens faced by the middle and working class in a time of wage stagnation. The interests of big business and large established players, sometimes working in tandem with government policy and other times simply bent to the will of regulators, have burdened families with higher costs than they ought to be paying for goods and services. It’s a simple thesis: health care, higher education, energy, and groceries cost more than they should; government policy is a not insignificant factor, but Washington largely doesn’t care; therefore, limited government advocates should seize the opportunity to take on the government policies that factor into this and make the case to eliminate or reform them.

You can see a good example of that in this Gallup poll from last year, which illustrates how gas, food, and healthcare costs are as bad or worse than tax issues in the minds of most Americans:

pricesOf course, global supply and demand issues affect energy prices – but what do people think of government policy on the subject? Not much. Check out this Morning Consult poll, released last week, which reflects a marked skepticism of government policy helping people on the subject of energy affordability. And the working class has strong opinions: people with incomes under 50k gave the government the worst grade in keeping energy costs affordable (and by a much wider margin than those making $100k+).

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Unfortunately for Republicans, the working class doesn’t trust them on energy issues. Voters may blame Washington as a whole, but for those earning under 50k, they see the left’s message as more appealing.

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This shouldn’t be the case, and the fact that it is just illustrates the need for Republicans to stop thinking about board room table issues and start talking about kitchen table issues. The energy portion of a “gas and groceries” agenda is full of politically vulnerable targets. Republicans ought to favor ending the massive subsidies for big conglomerates that drive up gas prices; streamline or eliminate burdensome regulations on energy, such as oil/gas export licensing; eliminate prohibitions on the ability of companies to drill and explore for fuel and other regulations which needlessly drive up prices, inhibit competition, and destabilize the market; eliminating all taxpayer-funded energy subsidies and letting the best product win; and, of course, eliminating subsidies and tax incentives for energy companies to turn food into gas, such as the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Most conservatives already oppose the RFS, the Jones Act, duties on oil pipe imports, pipeline delays, export restrictions, and drilling bans both offshore and on public land. They need to do more to reframe this issue into one with a more explicit appeal to working class concerns. Gas prices rose 3.3 percent in June, and the index for energy is up 3.2 percent over the course of the year.The political advantage here should be obvious: by attacking an issue the working class cares about and where it believes government policy is failing, this presents a golden opportunity to break the left’s coalition in half – between the Tom Steyers of the worldwho don’t want energy to be cheap and don’t care about the pricing ramifications of their policies, and for the working class that does.

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[Originally published at The Federalist]

Benjamin Domenech

Benjamin Domenech (bdomenech@heartland.org) is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute. Domenech... (read full bio)