Comparing the numbers of today with those of 2004 is instructive. While Romney lost households making between $30,000 and $49,999 by 15 points, George W. Bush lost them by only 1 point in 2004. Obama won voters from households making under $100,000 by ten points in 2012; Kerry won them by 1 point in 2004. In most of the battleground states, Kerry eked out a narrow margin of victory among those households making between $30,000 and $49,999; by 2008, Obama was scoring blowouts in that demographic. For example, Bush won it by three points in Pennsylvania in 2004, but Obama won it by 17 points in 2008 and 23 points in 2012. If Romney had pulled even somewhat near Bush's 2004 performance among voters making under $50,000, he would be president-elect at this moment.
Granted, inflation means that $30,000 was worth more in 2004 than it is today, and therefore this category represents a poorer demographic now, but the changes in voting patterns are still striking. The 20-point sea change in Pennsylvania working-class support between 2004 and 2008 cannot simply be chalked up to inflation or to a change in ethnic composition. Nor can Romney's poor performance with the working class be attributed entirely to the president's Bain attacks: The biggest Republican drop among the working class occurred in many states between 2004 and 2008.
The Republican shortfall with the working class in 2012 was due not simply to the nominee's personal background but to wider issues with Republican policies. In the wake of a decade of lost economic ground and the near-meltdown of 2008, many non-affluent voters seem to have a deep distrust of the ability of Republican policies to work for them. Romney's poor showing among this demographic underlines the fact that Republicans have not yet found an antidote to this distrust. Further tax cuts will not counter it, nor will promises to end Obamacare. As Ross Douthat suggested the other day, the concerns of average Americans are not the same today as they were in 1979, so Republican policies will have to change with them. By the end of the campaign, Governor Romney was beginning to tout a more forward-looking economic message, one that emphasized industrial renewal, energy development, and middle-class restoration. It was this message that made the election as close as it became on November 6.
Moving economic discussions beyond a fetishization of tax cuts need not be a surrender to the Left. There are, after all, authentically conservative responses to financial consolidation, deindustrialization, escalating health-care costs, soaring energy prices, and middle-class decline. It seems clear that, if Republicans cannot craft a message and a policy platform that speak to the needs of many in the middle and working classes, their ability to form a national governing coalition will remain in doubt.