Chasing the middle class
Brown and Warren campaign as defenders of the middle class
the 2012 massachusetts Senate election is shaping up as a competition for the hearts and minds (and votes) of the Bay State middle class. Both US Sen. Scott Brown and his leading Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren, are furiously spinning themselves as both members of and advocates for the middle class, while disparaging the other’s middle-class credentials.
Listen to the competing narratives offered by the campaigns, and one candidate either grew up clinging by her fingernails to the ragged edge of the middle class or rode a gilded yacht to her Harvard professorship. The other is either a truck-driving, barn-jacket-wearing everyman or Wall Street’s favorite senator.
Our polling helps explain the candidates’ relentless focus on the middle class. A substantial majority (about 85 percent) of Bay State residents think of themselves as members of the middle class. With this many self-described members, it is clear that middle-class membership is as much a state of mind as it is a socioeconomic status packaged between the upper and lower classes.
This widespread identification with the middle class holds political ramifications for the Senate candidates. Our polls show voters holding a strong affinity for whichever candidate they think has the greater understanding of the needs of the middle class, and the greater willingness to give voice to these needs while in the Senate.
Our polling shows the Bay State middle class carrying deep anxieties about rapidly rising costs for everything from health care to higher education. They are worried about the lack of good paying jobs to keep up with these cost increases. Just over half of Massachusetts residents (54 percent) say it is now harder than it was 10 years ago to afford the kind of life they want, compared to 11 percent who say it is easier now.
Combine these concerns with years of wage stagnation and other economic challenges, and one in three who count themselves as members of the middle class now say they are in danger of falling out of it. Among the lower middle class, nearly half (47 percent) perceive this danger. Even if the current generation manages to march in place, residents are more concerned about the prospects for the next generation, with six in 10 fearful the next generation will be worse off. No wonder then that voters are looking for a candidate who understands the recent struggles of maintaining a middle-class lifestyle.
The same middle-class dynamic playing out in the Senate race in Massachusetts is also influencing the race for president. Beaten down by decades of well-documented stagnation, the American middle class is seeking someone, anyone, who might have an idea about how to turn things around. Neither party will allow the other an easy path to claim the mantle of middle-class defenders.
Should former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney receive the GOP nomination, he will be drawn by Democrats as a job-destroying one percenter, woefully out of touch with the needs of everyday people. Romney, by contrast, will paint Team Obama as big-government, ivory-tower intellectuals without a clue about how to bring jobs back to the American middle class. If the current signs of economic recovery continue, this argument will likely morph into how much stronger the recovery could have been if the Obama autocrats had not been fumbling about.Here at home, neither Senate candidate has yet gained a decisive advantage on middle-class issues. A January poll we did for CommonWealth shows voters divided on the question of who will best represent the middle class. Should one side gain a decisive advantage on this front, it will go a long way to determining the outcome of the election.
Steve Koczela is the president of the MassINC Polling Group.