CAP Cancels Rollout of Project Aimed at Working Class White Voters

‘Bobby Kennedy Project’ put off until 2016 due to ‘insufficient funding’

CAP senior fellow Ruy Teixeira
CAP senior fellow Ruy Teixeira /
May 27, 2014

A top liberal group has temporarily abandoned plans for a new project designed to court white working class voters after it could not marshal the necessary financial support for the project, according to documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

The Center for American Progress planned to roll out a new effort last year called the Bobby Kennedy Project. However, insufficient funding for the project forced the group to postpone its launch until 2016.

The stated need for the project suggests potential pitfalls for Democrats in its eventual delay: In a midterm election year expected to heavily favor Republicans, CAP has apparently abandoned, for the time being, an effort to reach out to a constituency that it acknowledges could determine the viability of the Democrats’ voting coalition going forward.

The Bobby Kennedy Project was the brainchild of CAP senior fellow Ruy Teixeira, who for the past decade has stressed that a lasting Democratic majority will require the party to make inroads with white working class voters.

Teixeira coauthored the 2004 book The Emerging Democratic Majority, which acknowledged the conservative leanings of white working class voters, but argued that a long-term Democratic majority would require the party "get close to an even split" among that demographic.

Teixeira expanded on that point in a 2013 New Republic column coauthored with Andrew Levison, author of The White Working Class Today: Who They Are, How They Think and How Progressives Can Regain Their Support.

"To create a stable Democratic majority, Democrats need to win the support of a significant group of voters who are now part of the Republican coalition," they wrote.

"As the 2012 elections demonstrated, the group that has perhaps the greatest potential in this regard is the white working class. … The white working class has the potential to be a—if not the—decisive swing voter group for the future."

Teixeira announced the Bobby Kennedy Project in March 2013. Its goal, he wrote, would be "to bring a significant segment of [white working class] voters over to the progressive side."

Survey data show white working class voters are more likely than the general public to be skeptical of government interventions in the economy. They also tend to hold more socially conservative views.

Teixeira did not insist that the group was entirely winnable. Rather, he argued, poaching significant numbers of white working class voters from Republican candidates could be enough to cement a winning coalition.

"You can’t just give Republicans a clear field to play for the votes of white working-class men without putting up some sort of a fight because that just allows them to run the table with these voters, thereby potentially offsetting your burgeoning advantage among minorities, single women, millennials," he told the New York Times.

Teixeira’s rhetorical push on the issue coincided with attempts by Democrats across the country to maintain some baseline level of support among the white working class. The efforts peaked in 2013, after election watchers noted that Obama’s share of that demographic had declined from its relatively large showing in 2008.

Teixeira, through CAP, planned to help reverse that decline. In 2013, CAP was devising ways to "expand the progressive coalition to include more of traditional white working class by exploring and acting on the relationship between ideology, values, and culture beliefs of that demographic group," according to promotional materials from the liberal fundraising group Democracy Alliance.

The Alliance provided that summary of the project in a rundown of CAP activities contained in its portfolio of "Fall 2013 Investment Recommendations."

CAP is one of the top beneficiaries of Democracy Alliance fundraising. Twenty-six DA "partners" are supporting CAP in 2014, according to Democracy Alliance documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. They will provide between $3.2 million and $5 million for CAP this year, compared to the $3.3 million raised from 20 DA donors last year.

Despite increasing Democracy Alliance support, CAP was not able to attract the financing needed to launch the Bobby Kennedy Project.

The group "did not meet [its] goal to launch" the project last year, Democracy Alliance’s Spring 2014 investment portfolio notes. "Initiative postponed until 2016 due to insufficient funding."

That postponement comes as Democrats face yet another midterm "shellacking," due to voter apathy among key segments of Democrats’ base.

"Our voters are younger, more unmarried women, more African-American and Latino voters," President Barack Obama said last month. "They get excited about general elections; they don't get as excited about midterm elections."

While voter enthusiasm is down across the board even since the 2010 midterms, recent polls have shown Republicans with a significant enthusiasm advantage over Democrats.

Experts suggested Democratic thinkers and donors are more focused on cementing the female- and minority-heavy coalition that reelected Obama rather than reaching out to white, working class voters.

Swaying more working class whites to the Democratic side might require tweaking policy positions in ways that would alienate minorities and female voters, said University of Virginia political scientist Geoff Skelley.

"At this point, the tradeoffs they might have to make to attract more working-class white voters may not be worth the cost in irritating the constituencies of their current coalition," Skelley said in an email.

"Democrats may believe they have the economic arguments to attract those voters, but cultural conservatism among many working-class whites will make it hard to win many of them over," Skelley explained. "And there’s no going back at this point for Democrats on social issues: they’ve made gains by being a socially liberal party, probably more than from being an economically moderate-to-liberal one."

Teixeira did not respond to a request for comment on the delay in the Bobby Kennedy Project rollout.

Skelley said the decision "could be a sign that the organization felt it could use its money more effectively elsewhere or because CAP couldn’t attract enough donors specifically to that project."

"On a larger level, that probably is partly because of the problems Democrats and liberals have today with appealing to working-class whites, particularly because of social and religious issues," Skelley said.