In the 1996 battle for the White House, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole scrapped over the hearts, minds and votes of a tiny demographic that was supposed to swing the race: soccer moms.
Then in later elections came “the undecideds,” “security moms” and the e-savvy “youth vote.”
Eight weeks remain before America chooses its next president. What’s clear from two weeks of national convention placards and punditry is that this year the contenders are thinking far bigger — going after nothing less than the massive, yet sadly shrinking American middle class.
It’s huge and amorphous, unbound by any demographic standard or political leaning.
Odds are you’re part of it — or at least you think you are — whether you’re a liberal, college-educated, Kansas City-dwelling coffee barista making $17,000 a year, or a conservative Johnson County couple making $150,000 but saddled with a mortgage and college debt.
That the middle class is so ungainly, experts say, is exactly what will make appealing to those people a challenge for both parties.
It includes people like Martha and Rafael Ramirez, both 38, of Kansas City, Kan., who each work two or three jobs. He’s a full-time school facilities manager; she has a job at an accounting firm. They work 70 to 80 hours a week, including selling tamales made in their kitchen to make ends meet. They have one daughter in college and three other children in private schools.
“Education is our investment,” Martha Ramirez said. “We do what we have to do.”
It also includes Jeannette Lawson, 59, and her husband, Robert, 61, of Liberty, self-described as “solid middle class.”
Jeannette Lawson works at Cracker Barrel and volunteers most weeks at a food pantry. Her husband works on the assembly line at the General Motors plant. They have a grown daughter and a grown son who is disabled and lives at home.
“Most important to us is our belief in Christ,” Jeannette Lawson said. “We are very into our church. We ride with a Christian motorcycle group. We are not into gay marriages. I appreciated a lot of the people here in Missouri homeschooling their children.”
Right now, the Ramirezes and the Lawsons are at the epicenter of the political universe.
“You look at the way strategists are spinning out the various appeals,” said Rich Morin, a senior editor at the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. “You can see the Democrats casting the Republicans as the party of the rich, and the Republicans casting the Democrats as the party of the poor.
“But both are fighting to be the party of the middle class.”
At the Democratic National Convention last week, speakers repeated “middle class” frequently. Outside, earlier in the week, a symbolic giant ice sculpture spelling MIDDLE CLASS dripped to a puddle in the North Carolina sun.
At the Republican convention the week before, Mitt Romney struck the same chord.
“In the richest country in the history of the world, this Obama economy has crushed the middle class,” said Romney, who had retooled his 59-point “Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth” into a five-point “Plan for a Stronger Middle Class.”
Just before the Republican convention, the Pew Center released a 150-page report, “Fewer, Poorer, Gloomier: The Lost Decade of the Middle Class,” to provide a snapshot of middle-class economics and attitudes.
The center compiled data on the middle class in 2008, but since that time — with the economy aching and millions of Americans put out of work — political rhetoric aimed at the middle class had only intensified, Morin said.
“Both political parties seemed to be talking about the middle class,” Morin said. “We wanted to provide a factual basis for that conversation.”
What it reveals — based on surveys of middle-class adults, bolstered by other federal data — offers insight into similarities and differences among what is, effectively, the great mass of the American public.
“The middle class does not have one set of ideological or political positions precisely because it is so big and broad,” said University of Southern California political scientist Jane Junn. “To say you’re going to appeal to the middle class is as broad as saying, ‘I’m going to appeal to all white voters,’ or all women voters, or Asian or Hispanic or black voters. Middle class is a term which is almost synonymous with being American.”Dollars and perception
How do researchers define “middle class”?
For a four-person family in 2011, the middle of the middle — the median household income — was just over $68,000. Half of families made more; half made less. Pew determined that the “middle income tier” ranged from about $39,000 in annual income to about $118,000.
Using this metric, the researchers reported a gradually shrinking middle class, from 61 percent of Americans in 1971 to 51 percent in 2011.
Another definition hinges on perception — taking into account not only money, but also one’s education and background.
“When you ask Americans if they consider themselves middle class, you get this huge number,” said Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Needless to say, politicians have to pay a lot of attention to that.”
The number who see themselves as middle class: 89 percent, Pew reported.
Of them, 25 percent pegged themselves as lower middle class, 49 percent (down from 53 percent in 2008) in the middle middle, and 15 percent say they’re upper middle class. Only 2 percent of people claim to be upper class; just 7 percent say they’re lower class.
Among other findings:
Eighty-five percent of middle-class adults agree it’s harder now to maintain their lifestyle than it was a decade ago.
• Of those who feel that way, 62 percent blame Congress “a lot,” while 54 percent say the same about banks and financial institutions, 47 percent about large corporations, 44 percent about George W. Bush’s administration and 34 percent about the Obama administration. Just 8 percent blame the middle class itself.
Forty-two percent of middle-class adults said their household financial situation is worse now than before the 2008 recession; 32 percent said it was better.
• The vast middle class is partisan: 50 percent said they were Democrats, 39 percent said they were Republicans and 11 percent declined to identify.
• Fifty-two percent said they thought President Barack Obama’s policies in a second term would best help the middle class; 42 percent said Romney’s election would be better.The local view
And what do middle-class Kansas Citians think as Election Day draws near?
Cathie Moss, 61, an event planner for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, said she grew up middle class.
“My father is a retired firefighter, and my mother is a retired administrator from Truman Medical Center,” she said. “I know it is hard to believe, but in the 1960s we moved to 66th (Street) and Montgall (Avenue), and we were the first black family in that area.”
She remembers sitting on her grandfather’s knee talking politics, solving the world’s problems and betting him that a black man would one day be president of the United States.
“I’m not saying my parents never struggled now and then, but they lived a comfortable life,” Moss said. “I had all the things I needed. I could buy my lunch at school.”
A grandmother now, Moss raised two children on her own after a divorce. When she goes to the polls, she said, she doesn’t so much think about her own middle-class salary, as she does about particular issues such as Medicaid, Social Security and the middle-class promises of education and work that she grew up with.
“Nowadays it’s hard to be middle class,” she said. “My work career is almost over, but my grandsons — who are out of high school — are working in fast food. It’s hard anymore to get what we used to call everyday jobs. I don’t want to see them at 30 years old still working fast food.”
At age 26, Amanda Zimmerschied feels similarly — that when she goes to the polls, she is not voting based on her own economic interest or a sense of her place in the middle class. For her, she said, “It’s social issues. My values and what aligns with my beliefs.”
Raised in Lawrence by upper-middle-class parents — one an architect, the other an electrical engineer — Zimmerschied graduated from the University of Kansas in 2008, only months after the U.S. burrowed into a long recession. The economy has been good to her.
She landed a job soon after college and has doubled her salary in the four years she has sold television advertising for the local Fox News affiliate.
But she also recognizes the broad suffering of others. Concern for them, she said, guides her vote.
Raised poor, Bob Prue, 56, now places himself firmly in the middle class.
“It’s a great place to be,” he said.
Prue, a Native American, is a professor of social work at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is married, with a grown daughter, owns his own home and jokes that he sometimes had too much to eat.
“I feel fortunate having what I have,” said Prue, who concedes that when he goes to the polls, his own sense of how he rose into the middle class goes with him.
“My trajectory out of poverty was helped by student loans and the G.I. Bill,” he said. “When I go into the ballot box, it will be the candidate more likely to sustain those programs that enabled me to get where I am.”
Susanne McDaniel, 47, of Kansas City is the sole proprietor of her own media-buying company. She was raised by a father in Jefferson City who worked as a grocery store produce manager until retirement at age 65 and then kept going part-time to age 82. Her mom worked and retired at age 62 from a Missouri state agency.
“Both of my parents had to work; we needed two incomes,” McDaniel said.
When the economic downturn hit in 2008, McDaniel said, her company was hit hard. Although she thinks times will improve, she thinks they might get worse before they do.
“To me,” McDaniel said, “middle-class people are people who have to work in order to make a living. We have to work, and will always have to work.
“I also define it as a value— good strong family, parents sacrificing for their children.”
Some call it bootstrapping.
A steadfast Democrat, she said, “Bootstrapping to me is a Democratic middle-class value.”
Lawson defines middle class the same way: hard work, sacrifice, family.
“My mom always told us to work hard, put some money away in the bank and you will have it for later,” Lawson said. “Anymore, it hurts to be middle class. It just doesn’t seem like a good place to be any more.”
She is a Republican.