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At first blush, the headline on the Government Executive website seems unsurprising: “Poll: Obama leads Romney among government workers.” The article quotes Rasmussen Reports, which found that of the public sector employees polled, 54 percent said they would vote for President Obama, while 37 percent said they would vote for Republican challenger Mitt Romney. But a deeper look into the responses gives a sense of the size of this demographic, and demonstrates why the Republican ticket should take government workers seriously if they want to win.
How large is the public sector vote? Let’s look at the numbers. The most reliable, recent data we have on total public-sector full-time employment come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which reported in May 2011 that 21.7 million people were employed in “federal, state, and local government, including government-owned schools and hospitals, and the U.S. Postal Service.” From the 60 government “fashion designers” to the 6.4 million educators/librarians, the mean annual wage of a public sector worker is $51,340. These figures do not include part-time or subcontracted public sector employment. (Even more recent data on state/local government employment show less than a 1 percent drop from the 2011 numbers.)
Compare these 21.7 million public sector employees (let’s assume all are voting age and U.S. citizens) to some other demographic groups: 10.4 million Asian Americans, 26.5 million African Americans, and 30.8 million Hispanics of voting age (some of whom are, of course, also public sector employees). But it is when we look at voting behavior (registration and voting) that government employees appear to flex their civic and electoral muscles.
According to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau on the 2008 presidential election, 63.6 percent of all Americans who could vote did. Looking at subgroup performance across all breakouts, “educational attainment” carried the widest participation gap, with the highest percentage turnout (of all groups, including age, ethnicity, and household income) among Americans with an advanced degree (82.9 percent) and the lowest turnout among Americans without a high school diploma (39.4 percent). Other factors positively correlated with voter turnout in 2008—as in most elections—were household income and “duration of residence.”
Public sector employees possess all of the demographic attributes for high electoral participation.
The Census does not break out public sector voting specifically, but the Current Population Survey—a joint program of the Census Bureau and BLS—does. This is all self-reported data, but research into the 2008 election numbers reveals that 76.1 percent of public sector workers say they voted. This is about 13 percentage points higher than private sector voting. Moreover, a combination of factors lends itself to the hypothesis that these workers participate at very high levels. First, is the obvious: Working in the public sector increases one’s awareness of political issues and self-interest in choosing candidates who may have a direct impact on one’s employment.
Second, public sector employees possess all of the demographic attributes for high electoral participation. Looking at the data from the Congressional Research Service’s July 2011 study comparing public and private sector employment, government workers tend to be older (51 percent are between the ages of 45 and 64), more highly educated (52 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree versus 34 percent of private sector employees), and more unionized (40 percent versus 7.7 percent of private sector) than their private sector counterparts. Again, these factors are all positively correlated to voting.
So let’s say, for argument’s sake, that at least 76 percent of government workers will vote in the November election, as they did in 2008. This would create a total pool of 16.5 million voters. Some perspective: this is more voters than participated in any single state in 2008 (including California’s 13.8 million), more than the entire 2008 African American voting population, and more than the total Asian American and Hispanic voting populations combined.
At the rates consistent with the Rasmussen data—54 percent for Obama, 37 percent for Romney—this would produce a 2.8 million-vote advantage in favor of President Obama.
Could the GOP Win Over Government Workers?
By paying attention to the Rasmussen data and modifying its rhetoric, it’s conceivable that the GOP could make important headway into this large voting group. Interestingly, 61 percent of the government employees surveyed by Rasmussen agreed with the statement that “the federal government has become a special interest group that looks out primarily for its own interests.” While not as high as the response by private sector respondents (74 percent agreed) this is still a revealing admission.
Similarly, more than half of both public and private sector workers “believe government and big business work together in ways that hurt consumers and investors.” And 59 percent of government employees surveyed agreed that they “trust the judgment of the American people over political leaders.”
Working in the public sector increases one’s awareness of political issues and self-interest in choosing candidates who may have a direct impact on one’s employment.
So it would seem that there are points of agreement between Republicans and considerable portions of the public sector. No one on the campaign trail is speaking about the evils of “crony capitalism” more than vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan. In blurbing the back of economist Luigi Zingales’s latest book, A Capitalism for the People, Ryan praises the author for exposing “the pernicious collusion of big business and big government.” Romney often skewers the 2009 stimulus package as being a classic case of insider dealing, where Obama “showered his friends with stimulus funds and sent millions of taxpayer dollars overseas.” Still, the GOP slate languishes 17 percentage points behind the incumbents among public sector employees.
One possible attempt at détente would be to change the way Romney (and other Republicans) talk about government workers. In speeches by the GOP nominees, the word “bureaucrat” is a frequent epithet. Often thoughtlessly thrown around on the stump, it is a term that blankets the municipal firefighter to the employee of the Social Security Administration. President Obama rarely uses the word, and when he does, it is usually in defense of public sector workers. At an August campaign rally in Las Vegas, Obama said of Romney, “The way he talks about them [teachers], it seems as if he thinks these are a bunch of nameless government bureaucrats that we need to cut back on.”
Of course, the Democratic Party’s proclivity to hide behind teachers and firefighters in support of generalized higher taxes and government spending has become a familiar trope, but it might serve Republicans better to take a “don’t hate the player, hate the game” approach to their attacks on government spending. The attention should move from the personal to the systemic—to bureaucracy—and its naturally problematic qualities. Romney’s recent calls for cuts to benefits for the federal workforce are being couched in a fairness argument (benefits should be comparable to those of the private sector), but his position should be expanded more broadly to take on a system that has obviously grown beyond its means.
In his classic, The Logic of Collective Action, social scientist Mancur Olson was one of the first to study the adverse effects of special interests in government institutions. He argued that due to its monopoly regulatory power and immense fiscal resources, government naturally draws the attention of these groups—often to the detriment of what could be construed as the common good. His theory, put simply, is that concentrated benefits (from stimulus projects to tax breaks) will always outweigh diffuse obligations (what the “rest of us” have to pay).
Sixty-one percent of the government employees surveyed agreed with the statement that ‘the federal government has become a special interest group that looks out primarily for its own interests.’
James Q. Wilson, the legendary political scientist, studied and wrote extensively on the problems of bureaucracies. In his 1967 essay in The Public Interest, “The Bureaucracy Problem,” Wilson described the natural tendency of government agencies to grow, protect turf (often involving “mission creep”), and avoid accountability. On this last element, Wilson wrote, “accountability is ‘politics,’ and the bureaucracy itself is the first to resist that.” With his typical call for humility in public policy, Wilson demanded that the first step toward a correct understanding of anything like “limited government” means “admitting what, in our zeal for new programs, we usually ignore: There are inherent limits to what can be accomplished by large hierarchical organizations.”
These qualities of bureaucracies make attacking “bureaucrats” a failure on both political and policy grounds. But, more importantly, the federal spending proposals raised by both Romney and Ryan are hardly as draconian as many portray them. At least the Ryan budget forecasts government spending at around 20 percent of GDP—not far from the average since World War II. Meanwhile, President Obama has frozen fed pay for the last two years, proposing it yet again for 2013.
It is doubtful that Romney will win the public sector vote, but in a race that is currently neck-and-neck, a few thousand of these votes in the right state could make all the difference. Counterintuitively, a conservative pitch is there to be made, and there are government workers who appear to be ready for it.
Pete Peterson is executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy.
Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group
Government workers are ready for a conservative pitch.
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