About 60 percent of US voters do not have a four-year college degree, and they live disproportionately in unstable states. As a result, these voters—often described as working class Americans—are critical to winning the election. Yet many of them are deeply skeptical of the Democratic Party today.
Republicans reclaimed the House last year by winning most of the districts with below-average incomes. In nearly 20 Western and Southern states, the Democratic Party was nearly ousted from office statewide mainly because of their weakness among the white working class. Since 2018, the party has also lost ground to black, Asian, and especially Latino voters.
Unless the party improves its standing with blue-collar voters, “there is no way for progressive Democrats to advance their agenda in the Senate,” according to a lesson released by the Center for Working Class Politics, a left-leaning research group, this morning.
America's political class reversal — with most professionals supporting Democrats and more working class people supporting Republicans — is one of the most important developments in American life (and, as any casual reader knows, a continuing theme of this newsletter).
Today, I'll be writing about what Democrats might be doing about this issue, focusing on a new YouGov poll, conducted as part of the Center for Working Class Politics study. In a future newsletter, I will examine this issue from a conservative perspective and in particular how Republicans can shift their economic agenda to better serve their new working-class base.
The key point is that even small changes in the working class vote can determine an election. If President Biden wins 50 percent of the non-collegiate vote next year, he will almost certainly be re-elected. If he only won 45 percent, he would probably lose.
‘Fighting for all of us'
Elections can be complex for social scientists to study. The sample size is small and idiosyncratic. The researcher cannot do hundreds of selections in the laboratory, changing one variable at a time and analyzing how the results change. But researchers Can conduct opinion polls that pit hypothetical candidates against each other and see how the results change as the candidates' biographies, messages, and policy proposals change.
This approach, which is becoming more common among pollsters, is what YouGov uses. It focuses on first-time voters – those who do not identify strongly with either party, many of whom are working class. The poll describes a pair of Democratic candidates, each with a biography and campaign platform, and asks respondents which they prefer.
Among the findings:
Voters prefer prospective teachers, construction workers, warehouse workers, doctors or nurses. The least popular candidate professions are lawyers and corporate executives.
Many effective messages involve work, including moderate (such as tax credits for training in small business) and progressive (such as federal job guarantees) policies. “People are clearly attracted to high-paying jobs,” said Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of Jacobin, a left-wing magazine that helped sponsor the project. “They have an identity rooted in their work.”
Black and Latino candidates were slightly more popular than the other candidates, mainly because some voters of color favored candidates of color. (Related: Black candidates—of various ideologies—have beaten non-Black candidates in recent primaries and mayoral elections in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia, Matthew Yglesias of Substack show me.) But candidate messages that explicitly mention race are unpopular.
Voters favored Democrats who criticized the two political parties as “unrelated”. There's also real-world evidence to support these findings: Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona and Representative Marcy Kaptur of Ohio won a close race last year while highlighting their differences with Democratic leaders, as did Data for Progress, another research group, have noted.
Moderate social policies fared better than more liberal ones. The single most effective message from the poll was a vow to “protect borders”; Border decriminalization is highly unpopular.
Swing voters favor tough populist messages such as “Americans working for a living being betrayed by the super-rich elite” and “Americans need to come together and elect a leader who will fight for all of us.” As Jared Abbott, director of the Center for Working Class Politics, says, “Democrats don't need to care too much about rhetoric.” Doing so was nothing new: Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt used such red-blooded language.
I find the study conclusions interesting because they are both original and consistent with other evidence. Democrats who have won tough elections recently, including both progressives and moderates, often present a blue collar image.
President Biden talked about growing up in a working class environment. Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez, who owns an auto repair shop, turned around the House district in Washington State in part by criticizing her own party for being elitist. Senator Sherrod Brown, the only Democrat to win statewide in Ohio since 2011, is a populist. So is John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, the only Senate candidate from either party to flip seats last year.
Many Americans are frustrated with the direction the country is headed, and they want a candidate who will promise to fight for their interests. One of the vulnerabilities of the Democratic Party today, as my colleague Nate Cohn has written, is that it is associated with the establishment.
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