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Will Burly Men Stop House Democrats' Blue Wave?

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Friday, October 26, 2018

Do they live in two different worlds? White college graduate women favor Democrats over Republicans in House elections by a 62 to 35 percent margin. White non-college-graduate men favor Republicans over Democrats in House elections by a 58 to 38 percent margin.

Those results are from a Washington Post-Schar School poll conducted in 69 seriously contested congressional districts, 63 of them currently held by Republicans. The numbers in other polls are only slightly different for these two groups.

They all tell the same story. These Americans live in the same relatively small slices of America (average population about 750,000), not many miles away from one another if they're in major metropolitan areas or in similar communities in rural districts. But they take very different -- often angrily different -- views on where the nation is headed and on sensitive issues.

Most, though, take a similar view of what has long been considered a decisive issue: the economy. Fully 77 percent in the survey rate the economy positively, a huge contrast with just about every survey taken between 2000 and 2016. Several months of 4 percent growth, considered impossible by some economists, has apparently been impossible to ignore.

But when asked their view of the direction of the nation "apart from the economy," the respondents revert to partisan type. White college women are especially negative, and white non-college men are solidly positive. Anyone whose personal acquaintance ranges across these groups can appreciate why one finds President Donald Trump repellent and the other congenial.

But there's a policy component, too. It's not that white college women are diehard Keynesians and white non-college men supply-siders. People tend to tailor their economic theories to partisan preference, not vice versa. But the economic policies of the last two administrations and concurrent trends have had -- and were intended to have -- very different effects on white college women and white non-college men.

Then-President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus package was heavily tilted toward college women. As my American Enterprise Institute colleague Christina Hoff Sommers wrote in The Weekly Standard in June 2009, the Obama economic team's original idea was to finance infrastructure, construction and manufacturing, sectors that lost 3 million jobs from 2007-09.

But feminist groups objected. Obama economist Christina Romer, Sommers wrote, recalled that her first email "was from a women's group saying 'We don't want this stimulus package to just create jobs for burly men.'" So Obama ditched his "macho" stimulus plan for one stimulating creation of jobs in government, and especially in education and health care, which had gained 588,000 jobs during the 2007-09 recession. Forget the bridge building and electric grid modernization; let's subsidize more administrators, facilitators and liaisons.

The results were disappointing. Sputtering growth nudged up toward 3 percent and down toward zero, as it was during the last quarter of the Obama administration. Administrators outnumbered teachers in higher education but added little value. Government payrolls were temporarily sheltered from cuts. There was little recovery in blue-collar jobs, reduced life expectancy among downscale groups, opioid dependency and deaths. There were millions of men lingering on the disability rolls.

The trajectory of the economy -- and the beneficiaries -- seems different in the Trump presidency so far. Growth is more robust, obviously, though some economists thought this was impossible. And the biggest gains are, in contrast with the last 30 years, in blue-collar jobs and downscale earnings.

It's not clear there's a connection between these trends and Trump's policies and promises to make blue-collar America prosperous again. White House economic adviser Lawrence Kudlow argues that tax reform -- especially corporate tax cuts and 100 percent depreciation -- has stimulated capital spending on manufacturing and jobs for burly men. That's certainly plausible, though it's probably wise to wait and see whether the trend continues.

It's also possible that economic gains or losses have been less important than increases in people's feelings when they are earning respect. And their angry feelings when they feel they're not.

How does this affect next month's election? White college women's anger has given Democrats an edge in enthusiasm and money most of this cycle. White non-college men's apparently rising anger over Brett Kavanaugh's nomination and pride in Trump's economy have apparently given Republicans a late boost.

How much? White college turnout is overstated in polls, says The New York Times' Nate Cohn, and overanticipated by a white college-dominated media. The Republican boost's size -- and perhaps its existence -- is unclear. The Post poll puts Democrats up 4 percent in its 69 districts; the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll has the parties even in the most competitive races. What looked like a Whole Foods blue wave for Democrats looks more like a narrow Democratic -- or maybe Republican -- House majority.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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