Pundits have feasted on Barack Obama's recent musing that Pennsylvania's rural citizens "cling" to their religion and guns out of embittered economic desperation. Thus far, they have focused on whether Obama is an elitist who views religion as a crutch and whose copy of the Constitution somehow lacks the Second Amendment.
More important, though, is whether Obama's remarks reflect the emerging demographic transformation of the Democratic party from a bottom-up "party of the people" into a holding pen for all sorts of economic and educational elites. One way to test this is to look at who has been making presidential campaign contributions during the 2008 election cycle. Thanks to the way the Federal Election Commission collects this data, we can sort contributions according to a donor's occupation or employer.
The Democrats' penetration of America's elites is evident when we look at how the two parties fare among those at the very top rungs of corporate America.
Through May 1, the Democratic presidential field has suctioned up a cool $5.7 million from the more than 4,000 donors who list their occupation as "CEO." The Republicans' take was only $2.3 million. Chief financial officers, general counsels, directors, and chief information officers also break the Democrats' way by more than two-to-one margins. The Democrats' advantage among "presidents" is a less dramatic but still significant $7.2 million to $6.1 million. And this isn't new: In 2004 all but one of these categories of top corporate officers broke just as dramatically for the Democrats, the "presidents" being the exception.
Republicans do somewhat better further down the corporate food chain, but still lose the competition for contributions from executive vice presidents, vice presidents, and managers.
Wall Street firms, long a symbol of American elite accomplishment, also tilt decisively toward the Democrats. Employees in storied Wall Street institutions such as Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Morgan Stanley have all favored the Democratic field by a large margin. Even both sides of the recent Bear Stearns/JP Morgan Chase deal choose Democratic candidates over Republicans by two-to-one margins.
Democrats also enjoy enormous fundraising advantages among well-educated professionals -- lawyers, teachers, accountants, journalists and writers. They carry practitioners of the hard sciences, winning solidly among physicians ($8 million to $4 million), biologists, chemists, physicists, and plain old scientists. Republicans must settle for a slender advantage among rocket scientists.
Not surprisingly, universities offer Democrats a hotbed of support. Professors favor Democrats over Republicans by a nine-to-one margin ($3.7 million to $430,000). Their students, though presumably struggling with sky-high tuition bills, nevertheless sacrificed enough late-night pizza and chips to send $4.1 million to their professors' favorite candidates and another $1.4 million to the GOP. The "objective" media -- reporters, journalists, publishers and editors -- also breaks heavily for the Democrats. But no listed occupation gives the Democrats a greater edge than the unemployed. These presumably idle folks have dropped over $14.6 million into the laps of the Democrats. Their idle Republican neighbors, in contrast, have unburdened themselves of a mere $9,775. Go figure.
Who favors the Republicans? The Democratic field, after all, enjoys an overall fundraising edge in excess of $200 million, so any pocket of Republican strength is noteworthy.
In this upside-down campaign season when populist GOP campaigners like John McCain and Mike Huckabee surprised the pundits with their primary victories or, in the case of Ron Paul, their fundraising prowess, it almost makes sense that the party of the country club set has been winning the fundraising race among the common man. That's right. The white-shirt/red-tie brigade of Republican presidential aspirants holds a nearly three-to-one edge among janitors, custodians, cleaners, sanitation workers, factory workers, truckers, bus drivers, barbers, security guards, and secretaries. While Democrats command the financial loyalty of architects, Republicans successfully woo contributions from the skilled craftsmen who turn their blueprints into reality -- specifically, contractors, hardhats, plumbers, stonemasons, electricians, carpenters mechanics, and roofers. This trend extends to the saloons, where the Democrats carry the bartenders and the Republicans the waitresses. The GOP field even secures more financial support from teamsters, steelworkers, bricklayers, and autoworkers.
That's the good news for the GOP. The bad news is that fewer of these politically active citizens contribute to campaigns and, when they do, they contribute far less than their elite brethren.
What should we make of all this? National political parties, after all, reflect their supporters, and party leaders traditionally feel a responsibility to cater to their supporters' whims. A party that receives overwhelming support from elite Wall Street investment firms, corporate bigwigs, and highly educated professionals may find it exceedingly difficult to raise their taxes or impose draconian new Big Government regulations on them. Similarly, a party that is losing well-educated suburban professionals and gaining support from blue-collar workers may find it more difficult to support free trade agreements and embrace globalization.
Washington Democrats have already adapted their Big Government instincts to this new reality. They have designed government guarantees, subsidies or handouts to address the insecurities of middle- and upper-income American families. Think of the new subsidies proposed on Capitol Hill for higher education, more generous flood insurance for vacation homes, bailouts for homeowners with mortgages as high as $730,000 and welfare-style health coverage for kids in middle-income families, and you get the idea.
Their Republican counterparts, meanwhile, have struggled over how best to sell the benefits of limited government, lower taxes, and free markets to the elites who used to love them or their new, more populist constituent base. Addressing this new reality may be the most important challenge both major parties face in the months and years ahead.
Michael Franc is Vice President of Government Relations for The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in National Review Online