Abortion, student loans and the Republican weakness for nostalgia
The Democrats seem to be in better shape going into this fall’s elections than previously thought. A Wall Street Journal poll released on Sept. 1 had the party ahead by three points on the question of how people intend to vote for Congress; the Republicans were ahead by five points in March. One reason for the change is that Black and Hispanic voters are “more solidly supportive of the party than they were earlier this year.”
Other recent polls suggest that two issues are uniting the Democrats’ sometimes-shaky base of white college graduates and nonwhite voters of all educational levels: abortion and student loans. The Republican approach to these issues, which often includes cranky complaints about how American society has changed since the 1950s, may limit any red wave this year.
On abortion, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll from June found that only 33 percent of white college graduates and 35 of all nonwhite voters supported the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade; by contrast, 50 percent of white voters without college degrees supported the decision. Recent polls have suggested a recent shift among nonwhite voters toward the pro-choice side: In a Public Religion Research Institute poll also from June, 75 percent of Hispanic Catholics said abortion should be legal in “most or all cases,” up from 51 percent in a P.R.R.I. poll in 2010.
As for student loans, nonwhite voters seem to be more supportive of the Biden administration’s plan to cancel $10,000 in student loan debt for individuals earning less than $125,000 a year. In a YouGov poll from August, 51 percent of white voters supported the plan, compared with 73 percent of Black voters and 62 percent of Hispanics. (The poll did not include data on white Catholics, who have one of the highest college-going rates of any demographic group.)
Recent polls have suggested a recent shift among nonwhite voters toward the pro-choice side.
These two issues are part of a larger problem the Republican Party has with nonwhite voters, despite Donald Trump's improvement with this group in 2020. The Republicans are running on nostalgia, mourning the loss of an America where more conservative sexual norms were enforced (“Girls were girls and men were men,” as Archie Bunker used to sing on the sitcom “All in the Family”), and people could work their way through college. For Catholics, this was also an America where white Europeans still dominated the U.S. church and no one had ever heard of the Second Vatican Council.
Nonwhite voters naturally do not have much affection for America as it existed before the civil rights movements of the 1960s and before the country became more racially diverse. And this wariness could carry over to all kinds of political issues.
These include abortion. Polls taken before the reversal of Roe suggested that Hispanics were less supportive of abortion than the country as a whole, and polls have long shown that Black Americans are more religious, so the Republican Party hoped that overturning Roe would help with these voters.
But nonwhite Americans are also aware of longstanding racial inequities in both health care and criminal justice. Laws against abortion that have the result of closing clinics of any kind, or restricting any kind of medical procedure, can lead to fears that already disadvantaged communities are going to end up with even worse health care. Stories about women being prosecuted because of the suspicion that a miscarriage is the really a self-induced abortion (regardless of whether these are scare stories from pro-choice groups) can reinforce the belief that the women who don’t get the benefit of the doubt will mostly be Black or Hispanic. And the idea of preventing women from crossing state lines to get abortions (again, even if an exaggeration by pro-choice groups) has racial connotations in a country where state lines once meant the difference between freedom and slavery.
Republicans are also displaying a stern, old-fashioned reaction to forgiving student loan debt.
Pro-life Republicans may be able to make inroads with nonwhite voters by talking about a post-Dobbs, rather than a pre-Roe, approach to abortion that emphasizes a safety net for pregnant women, and some pro-life candidates do seem to be moderating their rhetoric. But fears that punitive measures will not be applied fairly are not easily erased among Black and Hispanic voters, especially when Republican candidates are also supporting crackdowns on “voter fraud” that seem to target nonwhite voters.
Republicans are also displaying a stern, old-fashioned reaction to forgiving student loan debt. Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, tweeted that the Biden plan is a “gut punch to every hard working single mother who worked double shifts to pay for her own education” (as if any job with “double shifts” would now pay enough to cover for college tuition), and Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican from Florida, mocked the idea of taxpayers helping “to pay a loan for someone who got a PhD in gender studies” (though business majors now outnumber students majoring in ethnic, cultural or gender studies by about 50 to 1).
The idea that student loan forgiveness primarily helps entitled white students is contradicted by evidence that debt is highest among Black college graduates (who owe an average of $52,726, compared to $28,006 for white graduates, according to a Brookings Institute study from 2016), in large part because they come from poorer households that can contribute little toward tuition bills.
To nonwhite voters with student loan debt, snarky comments about a “slacker barista who wasted seven years in college”—as Mr. Cruz characterized a hypothetical beneficiary of partial debt forgiveness, putting him in a job that connotes modern, big-city multiculturalism—may recall racial stereotypes of laziness, as well as the old accusations that affirmative action programs reflect a desire to get “something for nothing.”
As with abortion, there are more forward-looking approaches the Republicans could take here, such as coming up with plans to control the costs of higher education, as opposed to blaming students for not being able to pay for college as easily as their parents or grandparents could have. The Trumpian argument that things were so much better 60 or 70 years ago may play well with the most loyal Republican voters, but it could cost the party big this fall.
[Read next: “The Biblical case for forgiving student loan debt.”]