ROYAL OAK, Mich. – Frank Houston knows something about the longtime estrangement of white men from the Democratic Party. His family roots are in nearby Macomb County, the symbolic home of working-class Reagan Democrats who, distressed by economic and social tumult, decided a liberal Democratic Party had left them, not the other way around.
Houston grew up in the 1980s liking Ronald Reagan but idolizing Alex P. Keaton, the fictional Republican teenage son of former hippies who, played by Michael J. Fox on the television series “Family Ties,” comically captured the nation’s conservative shift.
But over time, Houston left the Republican Party because, he said, “I started to realize that the party doesn’t represent the people I grew up with.”
Now, as chairman of the Democratic Party in Oakland County, Michigan’s second largest, Houston is finding out how difficult it can be to persuade other white men here to support Democrats, even among the 20 or so men, mostly construction workers, who join him in a rotating poker game.
Houston is part of an internal debate at all levels of his party over how hard it should work to win over white men, especially working-class men without college degrees, at a time when Democrats are gaining support from growing numbers of female and minority voters.
It is a challenge that runs throughout the nation’s industrial heartland, in farm states and across the South, after a half-century of economic, demographic and cultural shifts that have reshaped the electorate.
Even in places like Michigan, where it has been decades since union membership lists readily predicted Democratic votes, many in the party pay so little attention to white working-class men that it suggests they have effectively given up on converting them.
“There’s a whole cadre of us – of young, white men political leaders in Oakland County – who are saying, ‘We can’t just write off 30-year-old to 40-year-old guys, let alone anyone who’s older.’ ”
So Houston and like-minded Democrats are working to deploy new, data-driven targeting tools to get the message to white men that the party is more in sync with them than they might think.
No Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of white men since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all prevailed with support of the rising electorate of women, especially single women, and minorities.
But fewer of those voters typically participate in midterm elections, making the votes of white men more potent and the struggle of Democrats for 2014 clear.
What discourages Democrats is that men’s attitudes shaped over generations – through debates over civil rights, anti-Communism, Vietnam, feminism, gun control and dislocations from lost manufacturing jobs and stagnant wages in a global economy – are not easily altered.
“Democrats are for a bunch of freeloaders in this world as far as I’m concerned,” said Gari Day, 63, an Avis bus driver from suburban Detroit. “Republicans make you work for your money and try to let you keep it.”
Republicans say Democrats’ appeals to women, minorities and gays have been counterproductive with white men.
“When you’re spending 60 percent of your time talking about birth control and Obamacare, not a lot of men are paying attention to you,” said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.