Republicans feeling poor, resentful

There’s a hidden, little-discussed surprise lurking deep in your pollster’s crosstabs. Republicans are feeling poor these days. Yes, I know all the lies about the Republicans being the “1 percenters.” But it’s not true. These days Republicans are the self-employed and small-business owner-operators. And they’re not doing well financially, certainly not as well as the Democratic government and union employees, who have experienced much less economic deprivation since 2008.

Personally, I don’t like all this class warfare stuff that divides our country for political gains, but it bothers me most when it’s all based on deception, distortion and trumped-up stereotypes. 

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This all came home to me some time ago during a focus group. A near-retirement-age woman spoke tearfully of criticism her husband, a career state employee, took from his two brothers. As the woman described it, her husband took a lower-paying government job to ensure a more stable long-term financial path toward eventual retirement. Now that he’s wrapping up, his bothers, both self-employed businessmen scrapping to survive in this brutal economy, taunt him with criticisms of overly generous public pensions, financed by taxpayers like themselves. It’s a sad tale for both sides of the family. But too many Americans’ sympathies would lie with the government brother when it’s the business guys who are really hurting.

As a whole, Republicans are struggling on all fronts. They tell me they are less well off financially than they were a year ago. They say they won’t be better off a year from now. Republicans insist not just that taxes are too high but also that they are struggling financially to pay their taxes. This is not just about ideology. It’s about economic survival. It’s bad enough to coerce you into taunting your richer brother who took a different path.

In many ways, I am coming around to the position that the Tea Party wing of the GOP is less a purely ideological movement and more an economic response to hard times. Perhaps it’s better to think of the Tea Party as the union of the self-employed and the small-business community than as a latter-day patriot crusade.

Precise national data on this topic are hard to come by. It is estimated that there are about 23 million non-farm self-employed persons in America. It is also estimated that Republicans are 50 percent more likely to be self-employed than are Democrats. So it wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that there are 10 million or more self-employed Republicans, most of who are struggling financially these days. By comparison, there are 11 million or more government employees, most of whom are better off financially this year than their private-sector counterparts. And then there are at least 10 million more unionized industrial or service employees, who also have cushier pay packages and pensions than the self-employed. Don’t get me wrong. Most everyone is having his or her economic challenges these days, but self-employed and small-business Republicans are likely to be getting the worst of it.

That government employees are so overwhelmingly Democratic in partisanship makes this tougher for Republicans to swallow. A Gallup Organization study last year of unionized state employees found that 46 percent are Democrats and only 24 percent Republicans. Even among non-union state employees, the Democrats have a 10-point advantage, 39 percent to 29 percent. Local government employees also are more Democratic, though not to such an extreme degree.

Then Republicans hear reports, as one study from Ohio recently concluded, that public-employee total compensation exceeds that of the private sector by 43 percent. It creates resentment and fosters turmoil that will boil over in November. 

The next time you hear someone say that Republicans are greedy and rich, interrupt that person and set the record straight.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.