In broad strokes, that agenda generates enthusiastic support among blue-collar and older white voters who have grown increasingly resistant to government spending, particularly for transfer programs to the poor, and the taxes required to fund them. In the 2010 national exit poll, for instance, two-thirds of non-college whites said “government is doing too many things better left to businesses and people,” while only 29 percent agreed that “government should do more to solve problems.” In a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey last year exploring the contrasting attitudes among American generations, 62 percent of the aging white baby boom-and an even more resounding 67 percent of the older “silent” generation-said they preferred a smaller government that offers fewer services to a larger government that provides more. And in that same survey, a majority of both the baby boomers and seniors said they supported the repeal of the new Obama health care law, which according to other polls many of them primarily view as a welfare program for the poor. In the 2010 exit poll, nearly three-fifths of non-college whites also supported repeal.

But among both blue-collar and older whites attitudes about Medicare are very different. In March, the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll offered respondents two options for the program. Just 19 percent of whites older than 65 endorsed Ryan’s approach, which said “Medicare should be changed to a system where the government provides seniors with a fixed sum of money they could use either to purchase private health insurance or to pay the cost of remaining in the current Medicare program.” Fully 74 percent of white seniors said instead that “Medicare should continue as it is today, with the government providing health insurance and paying doctors and hospitals directly for the services they provide to seniors.” Among non-college whites, 63 percent said they preferred the current system, while only 26 percent backed Ryan’s approach. (Ryan’s plan also drew opposition not only from 66 percent of college-educated white women — consistently the most Democratic-leaning component of the white electorate — but even 60 percent of college-educated men, an audience usually receptive to anti-government arguments.)