Worries over the decline of the middle class have been front and center this election cycle. But while everyone is busy pandering to them, voters in the economic middle are actually less invested than ever in the process and more dissatisfied with the choices they face. They feel besieged, squeezed in between the undeserving poor and the greedy rich. Regardless of whether these fears are grounded in reality or are just a matter of perception, they are keeping the race for the GOP nomination alive (as they did in the 2008 Democratic primaries between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton), preventing Mitt Romney from clinching a victory that has been his to lose from the start. Even the highly anticipated ten-state vote of Super Tuesday did not break the stalemate, with Romney taking Virginia, Vermont, Massachusetts, Idaho and Alaska, but barely scraping by in Ohio, and Rick Santorum winning Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota. Newt Gingrich won in his home state of Georgia, probably enough to keep him in the race.
“I’m not concerned about the very poor,” Mitt Romney stated recently. “We have a safety net there […]. I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90-95% of Americans who, right now, are struggling.”
The message Romney conveys here resonates well in the US Midwest. Ohio, an archetype of the economically distressed rust belt and Super Tuesday’s big prize, is no exception.
“People at the top pay no taxes, people at the bottom the same,” says Debbie Hysell of Pomeroy, in southeast Ohio. “It’s always the people in the middle that end up paying for everybody.” Hysell, 52, says she is not overtly political but leans Democratic. She is the owner of Makin Memories, a struggling scrapbook store on Main Street, right on the Ohio River waterfront. This town of less than 2,000 is the seat of Meigs County, one of the poorest in the state and among the hardest hit by the decline of the coal mining industry. According to 2010 Census data, 20.8% of its population lives below the poverty line. As of December 2011, it had an unemployment rate of 11.8%.
While anti-tax feelings are nothing new, what is striking is the level of resentment that middle class people – at least in this part of the state – feel both towards the poor and towards the wealthy, not to mention towards national-level politicians in general.
“There are plenty of people in this community who cheat the system while we work our butts off,” says Greta Nease, 43, bartender at the dark, smoky, waterfront bar, Gloeckner’s Cafe. “They just make whatever they need to still qualify for food stamps.” Nease’s husband is a construction worker who is often on the road, chasing work across the country.
“We should get rid of everyone in a three-piece suit,” pitches in Max Drenner, 59, a regular at Gloeckner’s and a self-described democrat who works in a local hospital: “They just want more money, they don’t care.”
Further north along the shores of the Ohio River, in the desolate downtown of Steubenville, Froehlich’s Classic Corner is one of a handful of venues open for business on a Saturday afternoon. “Politicians are too removed from the reality of a place like this,” says Greg Froehlich, 58, the restaurant’s owner. He is a Republican in a city that is largely Democratic. In late February, he hosted a campaign rally for Rick Santorum. Known as the City of Murals (thanks to twenty-five wall paintings depicting working class life from its golden past), Steubenville has suffered a steady decline since the steel industry began to wane in the 1980s. In 2010, its population of less than 18,000 was just over half of what it had been in the 1940s. Incomes have been decreasing and the residents’ average age increasing. “It is a continuous regression out here,” says Froehlich. “2008 was our last good year at the restaurant. Since then we have seen a 20-30% decline in business.”
There are good economic reasons for such disenchantment. According to a study by University of California’s Emmanuel Saez, in 2010, median household income (adjusted for inflation) fell 2.3% over 2009, to a level not seen since 1996. And while the recession hit the rich as well as the middle class (between 2007 and 2009, the share of national income in the hands of the top percentile of households decreased from 23.5% to 18.1%), in 2010, the first year of the recovery, 93% of the gains went to the top 1%. This group’s income grew by 11.6% versus a meager 0.2% increase for the bottom 99%.
At the same time, the economic crisis forced many people below the poverty line. Willingly or unwillingly, these people ended up expanding the government roll. According to the Census Bureau, in 2010 alone, 2.6 million more people slipped into poverty. The total figure of 46.2 million poor Americans is the highest in the 52 years during which the government has kept track.
Not everybody agrees that things are going sour for the middle class. Scott Winship, of the Brookings Institution, has surveyed studies on long-term income trends and found that, if one looks at the last thirty years, the median household income has grown by between 35% and 55%. “While the rate of improvement has slowed compared to the mid-twentieth century – when there were amazing gains across the board – things haven’t gotten worse and they have actually improved by quite a bit,” says Winship.
Whatever the actual situation of the middle class is relative to the poor and to the rich, both the latter groups attract, for completely different reasons, a lot of public attention.
By no choice of their own, the poor – due especially to their reliance on government support – tend to be visible because of the way the welfare system is set up. “The more a government social program benefits wealthier Americans, the less obtrusive it is,” writes columnist Ezra Klein. “We design policies for the poor in ways that make it hard to escape the knowledge that the government is providing help.” So, for example, programs like food stamps force people to physically show up at a government office to apply, while others (catering to the middle class) are invisible, buried as they often are in the tax code.
As for the rich, with the progressive liberalization of campaign finance regulations, the amount of money donated to political causes by wealthy individuals has skyrocketed (George Soros is a long time donor to the Democrats. This year, Sheldon Adelson, Foster Friess and Julian Robertson have been contributing lavishly to the campaigns, respectively, of Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney.) The result is that a growing number of middle class voters are losing faith in American democracy. A recent survey conducted by Democracy Corps and the Public Campaign Action Fund found that 60% of voters believe that the “system is stacked against them” and that “the middle class will not catch a break in this economy until we reduce the influence of lobbyists, big banks, and big donors.”
Such a pervasive feeling helps explain popular manifestations of middle class frustration, such as the Tea Party’s rage over government spending and Occupy Wall Street’s angst over the 1%.
It doesn’t help, of course, that fewer and fewer national-level politicians actually belong to the middle class. Of the four GOP presidential hopefuls still in the race, all have at least one graduate degree, all are – at the very least – near-millionaires (Romney alone is worth over $200 million), and all have been part of the political or business establishment for decades. In a sense, the one who comes closest to having had a real working-class background is President Barack Obama. But his race and unusual itinerant upbringing (with stops in Hawaii and Indonesia) make him no less exotic to the average Midwestern white middle class voter. In 2008, Obama lost this constituency badly – first to Hillary Clinton and then to John McCain.
Additionally, 47% of members of the 112th Congress are millionaires: not exactly an accurate representation of America’s economic make-up. The inability of many people in the middle to recognize themselves in their elected officials is therefore no surprise.
“The center is what makes the country operate,” says Robert Schafer, 56, a fifth generation owner of the Schafer Leather Store, selling western clothes and boots in the quaint downtown of Marietta, Ohio (in 1788, Marietta became the first settlement in the Northwest Territory). “If it weren’t for the blue collar middle creating what white collar workers need, they wouldn’t be able to have the lifestyle they want.”
Like Obama with Clinton in 2008, Romney is sparring with Santorum (as well as a rotating cast of other extras) for the votes of the white working class, and he is losing. In Ohio – and pretty much in every state before it – the former governor of Massachusetts underperformed with voters who make less than $100,000 a year and with voters who have no college education.
Those who still choose to support him do so out of the belief that he might be in a better position to challenge President Obama for the White House. This is, for example, the case of Robert Schafer of Marietta, Ohio. “Man to man, I prefer Santorum,” he says, but he leans towards Romney on the issue of “electability”.
Besides, most people don’t think the ideal middle class candidate is about to appear any time soon. “The average Joe wouldn’t have the money to run for president,” says Patrick Gonzales, 50, chef at Wilde Horse Café in Pomeroy, Ohio – one of only a handful of Hispanics in this town and a Democrat who prefers Ron Paul to Obama.
Faced with a field of candidates far removed from their daily lives and whom they fail to connect with, middle class voters continue to struggle to make their choice. And the race goes on.