Recent discussion about the “Reagan Democrats” and their role in the 2008 election begs the question of who these voters were. The standard story is that these voters were blue-collar whites, conservative on social issues, and disenchanted with the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, in many respects, this characterization is inaccurate.
The “New Republicans” were not drawn disproportionately from the middle to lower strata of the population; their conservatism was not more marked on social issues than on economic issues; they were neither more religiously oriented nor more alienated from government than other voters; finally, they bore little similarity to the constituency that provided the core support for Wallace in 1968.
This is from an analysis of the 1980 election by Jerome Himmelstein and James McRae, Jr., which was published in the Public Opinion Quarterly in 1984. “New Republicans” are simply those who said they voted for Carter in 1976 but Reagan in 1980. This may not be what everyone means by “Reagan Democrat,” but given the amorphousness of the term, it is a reasonable working definition.
Himmelstein and McRae find that these New Republicans supported Reagan for much more ordinary reasons: they disapproved of the performance of President Carter, especially with regard to the economy. This kind of behavior—retrospective voting based on the performance of the national economy—is well-documented and, well, a lot more pedestrian than prevailing theories either then and now.
A question raised by Ezra Klein in the post linked to above is: what happened to the Reagan Democrats? Did they permanently defect to the Republicans, or did they return to the fold in later elections? There is no good data on this, in part because we have few surveys that interview the same voters over multiple elections. But Himmelstein and McRae’s findings strongly suggest that Democratic defections to Reagan had more to do with current economic circumstances than some sort of deep-seated ideological discomfort with the Democratic Party. This likely explains why not very long after Reagan, Democratic loyalty to the Democratic presidential nominee was at or above its historical norm (see this previous post).
The Himmelstein and McRae paper is here (gated). If anyone can find a non-gated version, please put the link in the comments.