The common thread that ties Mike Huckabee’s come-from-almost-nowhere victory in Iowa to Hillary Clinton’s unexpected resurgence in New Hampshire is a shared ability to speak to widespread middle- and lower-middle-class economic anxiety. In Iowa, Huckabee effectively disparaged Mitt Romney—who made a fortune at Bain Capital and outspent him 20 to 1—as someone who couldn’t possibly understand “people at the lower ends of the economic scale,” who fear that they’re losing ground in the increasingly globalized economy. And in New Hampshire, while Barack Obama’s rhetorical flourishes spoke most effectively to the young and to the “creative class” that has flourished in the global economy, Clinton—like her husband before her—felt the middle class’s pain, devoting most of her campaign events to highlighting economic issues and offering narrowly tailored programs to address everything from the rising cost of tuition to mortgage defaults. And it paid off: she defeated Obama by ten points among those who felt they were falling behind financially.
Clinton’s comeback aside, the most surprising fact to emerge from New Hampshire was that voters in both parties named the economy as the Number One issue. New Hampshire, where more than 81 percent of the voters have at least some college education, is prosperous by any standard. It enjoys the lowest poverty rate in the country, one of the lowest unemployment and taxation rates, and is in the top echelon of income. Yet only 14 percent of its Democrats and half of its Republicans believe that the economy is doing well, while a stunning 98 percent of voters in the Democratic primary and 80 percent in the Republican primary were “worried” or “very worried” about the economy.
Some of these worries are no doubt a response to $100-a-barrel oil and the decline in home values tied to the subprime lending meltdown. But why aren’t more conventional measures, like high incomes and low unemployment, having a more positive influence on the electorate’s state of mind? The answer, in part, is that the public has a set of fears connected, in one way or another, to the inexorable advance of globalization. Voters see offshoring, increased competition from low-cost countries, and illegal immigration as reflections of an unfriendly world that is closing in on them. Investor’s Business Daily, citing the enormous growth of both jobs and gross national income that freer trade has brought about, insists that “globalization is a boon to all Americans.” But the distributional effects of globalization have been problematic. An October 2007 Pew poll found that “three-quarters of the population is worried about growing income inequality.” The relative stagnation in middle- and lower-middle-class incomes, combined with a net decline in high-tech jobs, has, for once, made palaver about “what will happen to our grandchildren” somewhat credible.
The political mood can be judged in terms of shifting evaluations of risk and reward. If, as in the period of Republican ascendancy from roughly 1968 to 2004, the value of new rewards outweighs the perils of the associated risk, the market-oriented GOP will be the beneficiary. But if the fear of risk outweighs the hope of enhanced remuneration, as it did in the period from 1932 to 1966, and has again since 2006, then public support will shift away from markets and toward the presumed protections of government regulation.
Clinton’s slide in the polls began when she muffed a debate question about whether she supported New York governor Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. But when, in a subsequent debate, Obama botched his answer to the same question, he suffered no political penalty. That’s because Clinton draws her support heavily from white and black working- and middle-class voters who feel threatened by the double bind of increased internal and external economic competition. Obama’s core constituency, by contrast, is made up of people who have benefited from outsourcing and immigration, so the issue of illegal immigration doesn’t cut against him.
On the Republican side, John McCain lost among New Hampshire voters who thought the illegal immigration issue paramount. With Huckabee late to the New Hampshire campaign, McCain was fortunate to have as his main rival an authentically inauthentic Romney, whose patrician style and looks, as well as his ties to the financial sector, made him an implausible vehicle for populist sentiments. But the immigration issue is not going away. For many voters it is a proxy for globalization, and according to a December Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, “clear majorities of blue- and white-collar workers” think that “immigration hurts the nation more than it helps. Only those identified as professionals and managers approved, and only by a 5 to 4 ratio.” Polled directly on free trade, only 28 percent of the public said that globalization had been good for the country, while 55 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Democrats believed that it had been bad.
The impact of these numbers will, of course, be affected by candidates’ political personalities, various states’ electoral characters, congressional debates over trade agreements, and unforeseen events overseas, like the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. But if Iowa and New Hampshire are any indications, the economic insecurities associated with globalization will resurface repeatedly during primary season—in the January 15 GOP primary in Michigan, for example, a state with soaring mortgage foreclosures and the country’s worst economy. The outcome of both parties’ nomination contests may well be determined by which element of globalization—trade, immigration, and, of course, global terrorism—has the most influence on voters between now and Super Tuesday.