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Five Reasons Why Democrats Should Focus Obsessively on Working-Class Voters
There Is No Alternative
The working class is having a bit of a moment. The Center for Working Class Studies, in conjunction with Jacobin magazine and YouGov, released a major report, “Trump’s Kryptonite: How Progressives Can Win Back the Working Class”. At about the same time, the conservative, albeit heterodox, group American Compass released a hefty compendium, “Rebuilding American Capitalism”, clearly aimed at articulating an economic agenda that would attract more working-class voters to conservative politics. For those keeping score, I am cited in the former and contributed a memo to the latter. And I heartily recommend both efforts to all those seeking to understand our current political situation beyond the brain-dead—and quite boring—“my side good, the other side bad” takes that dominate today’s discourse.
David Leonhardt covered both of these efforts in his New York Times column. Of the Center for Working Class Studies report he writes:
Republicans retook control of the House last year by winning most districts with below-median incomes. In nearly 20 Western and Southern states, Democrats are virtually shut out of statewide offices largely because of their weakness among the white working class. Since 2018, the party has also lost ground with Black, Asian and especially Latino voters.
Unless the party improves its standing with blue-collar voters, “there’s no way for progressive Democrats to advance their agenda in the Senate,” according to a study that the Center for Working-Class Politics, a left-leaning research group, released this morning.
The class inversion of American politics—with most professionals supporting Democrats and more working-class people backing Republicans—is one of the most consequential developments in American life…A key point [in the report] is that even modest shifts in the working-class vote can decide elections. If President Biden wins 50 percent of the non-college vote next year, he will almost certainly be re-elected. If he wins only 45 percent, he will probably lose.
And of the American Compass report he writes:
[T]he consensus in Washington is moving away from the neoliberal, laissez-faire approach that has dominated since the 1980s. These new conservatives are trying to separate themselves from anti-government Republicans like Paul Ryan—and, although they won’t say so, Ronald Reagan.
One major reason is the class inversion of American politics. Most professionals now vote for Democrats, which is a stark change from past decades. Most working-class voters vote Republican, partly because they see Democrats as an elite party dominated by socially liberal and secular college graduates.
Yet the Republican Party still has a major vulnerability with working-class voters. The party has long pushed the laissez-faire agenda that has hurt those voters, and polls show the country to be left of center on economic policy…[T]he new conservative populism is an effort to show that Republicans understand Americans’ struggles and want to help. Economically, the new approach offers a glimpse of a Republican Party that’s starting to grapple with the economy’s true challenges.
Now we’re getting somewhere! There are messages here for both parties of course and I will build on them in this and future analyses. In this piece, I offer five reasons why Democrats should focus—and focus obsessively—on working-class voters. In a later piece, I will turn the tables and outline five reasons why Republicans should do the same.
1. There are just so very many working class voters. Many Democrats don’t have a realistic understanding of the country they live in, particularly the professional class voters who throng the country’s burgeoning metro areas (and who are now a core Democratic constituency!). Despite decades of educational upgrading and the rise of “knowledge worker” jobs, this is still a working-class (noncollege) country. In 2024, two-thirds of eligible voters will still be working class according to States of Change estimates.
This makes the implications of education polarization between the working class and college-educated clearer. The size disproportion between the former and the latter means that equal-sized shifts across these two groups favor the GOP. Looking at the national distribution and even taking into account turnout patterns that favor educated voters, if a one point increase in Democratic support among college voters is counter-balanced by a one point shift in support against the Democrats among the working class, the net effect would be to reduce the Democratic margin in the popular vote by half a point. If there were 5-point shifts for and against the Democrats in these two education groups, the Democratic margin would shrink by 2.5 points; if 10-point shifts for and against, the result would be a 5-point shrinkage.
2. Working-class voters are geographically central to Democrats’ chances. Working-class voters are dominant in virtually every state. Of course, there are states where they are less dominant—but where they are less dominant are precisely those places where Democrats don’t need much help. The 10 lowest working-class shares of eligible voters are in DC, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Colorado, Maryland, Virginia, Vermont, Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island.
But where Democrats need help in the Electoral College and Senate, working-class voters loom very large indeed. In fact, every state that is believed to be competitive for the Electoral College or Senate in 2024 is above the national average in its share of working-class voters. And many of these states have exceptionally large white working-class voter shares, the voter group where Democrats have had the most difficulties. These include West Virginia (71 percent) , Montana (57 percent), Ohio (56 percent), Wisconsin (56 percent), Michigan (53 percent), and Pennsylvania (51 percent). Even where the white working-class shares are lower, they are still hefty: Arizona (38 percent), Nevada (37 percent), and Georgia (35 percent).
In addition, as the authors of the Center for Working Class Studies report note, swing voters in these states are heavily dominated by working class voters: “According to data from the American National Election Survey (ANES), of the battleground state voters who switched parties between 2016 to 2020, nearly three quarters (72 percent) were non-college graduates.” The same demographic pattern applies to the serried ranks of nonvoters in whom Democrats typically invest so much hope. They too are overwhelmingly, disproportionately, working class.
3. The working class is precisely where Democrats have been losing ground. In 2020, Trump carried the working-class vote in 35 out of 50 states, including in critical states for the Democrats like Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, as well as in states that are slipping away from the party like Florida, Iowa, Ohio, and Texas. Comparing 2020 to 2012, two elections where Democrats carried the national popular vote by roughly the same amount. Democrats improved their margin among college-educated voters by 12 points, while their margin decreased by 7 points among working-class voters.
Strikingly, in light of all the attention paid—and rightfully paid—to Democrats’ problems among white working-class voters, the Democratic advantage among nonwhite working-class voters declined by a whopping 19 points across the two elections. In stark contrast, their margin among white college voters improved by 17 points across the same period.
Another startling summary statistic is that Democrats in 2022 lost the two-party House vote by 10 points among working-class voters while carrying college-educated voters by an identical 10 points. This perfect inversion tells you a lot about today’s Democratic party.
4. The working class is the Achilles’ heel of the Democrats’ nonwhite vote. Democrats, it is fair to say, are heavily dependent on their large margins among nonwhite voters. That is why, after all, the rising share of nonwhite voters in the overall electorate has been viewed as such an unalloyed benefit—if not magical elixir—for the Democrats.
But reduced margins among these voters can cancel out these benefits and undercut much of the Democrats’ strategy overall and in competitive states. Comparing 2022 to 2012, Democrats’ support margin is down a shocking 21 points among nonwhite voters overall. This is due above all to the slippage among nonwhite working-class voters which has been about twice as large as the decline among nonwhite college voters. And of course working-class voters are far more numerous among nonwhites than are the college-educated.
5. Working-class voters are the key to not just beating Trump but winning big. This follows from the previous four points. If Trump (or another Republican) is able to vanquish Biden in 2024, it will undoubtedly be because they succeed in making more inroads among working-class voters, white and nonwhite. All else equal, such shifts could easily flip enough states to give them an Electoral College victory.
Of course, it is possible that Biden could eke out another victory if those GOP gains are modest enough and/or are counterbalanced by, say, white college-educated shifts. Trump after all is a very flawed candidate who should not be that hard to beat.
But to be really sure of beating Trump (and that’s important, right?) substantial working-class gains by the Democrats are absolutely essential. There is no alternative. And there’s certainly no alternative if they hope to hold the Senate and even make gains there and in the House. Given the vulnerabilities of today’s Republican party, there is certainly an opening for a big victory. But that big victory runs straight through America’s working class.
That’s why Democrats should focus—and focus obsessively—on working-class voters. And if that entails talking more about basic economic issues and less about some of the culture war causes dear to the hearts of their liberal, college-educated supporters, I’d recommend they give it a try.