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How the White Working Class Could Sink the Democrats…Again
Yup, It Could Happen
With Trump running again and looking like he could easily be the 2024 Republican nominee, it’s a good time to cast your mind back to the first Trump shock of 2016. At the time, almost no one thought he could win.
And yet he did. While there were a lot of moving parts to Trump’s victory, the key development was a surge of white working-class voters into his column. This was true all over the country but particularly in competitive, but heavily white working-class, states like Iowa (23 point white working-class margin swing away from the Democrats), Ohio (16 point swing), Wisconsin (13 points), Michigan (11 points) and Pennsylvania (9 points).
While it’s still not widely-appreciated, a crucial factor in Biden’s 2020 victory over Trump was his ability to stop the bleeding among white working-class voters. These voters were the dog that didn’t bark in the 2020 election. Biden even managed a slight improvement among the white working class, moving them in the direction of the Democrats by 2 points nationally and by similar amounts in key states.
Given Biden’s relative success in 2020, we couldn’t possibly see a repeat of 2016 in 2024 could we? Never again, etc., etc.
Or could we? Consider that in 2022, this same group of voters moved 8 points toward the Republicans in the national House vote. What if this same shift relative to 2020 happened in 2024? States of Change simulations show that, all else equal, the five states that Biden took from Trump’s coalition—Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—would wind up back in Trump’s (or another Republican candidate’s) column. And with that, the unthinkable just might happen.
Then consider what might happen in the Senate. Right now, the top 8 competitive Senate seats are, in order of competitiveness, with projected 2024 white working-class voter share in parentheses: West Virginia (71 percent) , Montana (57 percent), Ohio (56 percent), Arizona (38 percent), Nevada (37 percent), Wisconsin (56 percent), Michigan (53 percent), and Pennsylvania (51 percent). These are all Democratic-held seats (counting Sinema, who caucuses with the Democrats). If Democrats lose two of these seats in 2024, they lose control of the Senate even if Biden wins. And if he loses, even one Senate loss would turn the Senate over to the Republicans. Given the increased correlation between presidential and Senate results and given the substantial and, in some cases, overwhelming presence of white working-class voters in all these states, a big white working-class shift is almost certain to put Republicans back in control of the Senate.
The possibilities of such a shift must not be underestimated. Biden is now the incumbent, rather than running against an incumbent. As such, the votes of the white working class for or against Biden will be heavily influenced by what they think about his administration and what it has—or hasn’t—accomplished.
To say these views are negative is to considerably understate the case. Start with what these voters think about the Biden economy. In the latest Fox News poll (don’t let the source fool you—this is an excellent poll!), white working-class voters express an abysmal 28 percent approval of Biden’s job on the economy with 71 percent disapproval. In a recent CNN poll, a mere 24 percent approved of the job Biden is doing helping the middle class, with a remarkable 75 percent disapproving.
In the Fox poll, only 14 percent of these voters say economic conditions are excellent or good; 36 percent say they’re only fair and half say conditions are poor. Similarly, the CNN poll found only 15 percent of the white working class characterizing economic conditions as very or somewhat good, while 85 percent said they are very or somewhat poor; a year from now just 22 percent expect the economy will be good and 77 percent think it will be poor.
Inflation clearly has a lot to do with these sentiments. In the Fox poll, 18 percent of the white working class think Biden administration actions are helping get inflation under control, compared to 44 percent who say those actions are hurting and 38 percent who believe they are having no effect. As does a general feeling of a lack of economic progress. In a recent Washington Post poll, only 12 percent of these voters feel they are now better off financially than when Biden took office, compared to 54 percent who say their financial situation is worse. Most damning of all, in the Fox poll 75 percent of white working-class voters report that for them and their families, it feels like the economy is getting worse rather than better.
On this evidence (and even leaving aside the possibility of a recession), a sharp swing against the incumbent administration by white working-class voters seems like a very real possibility. The administration hopes that by touting its legislative accomplishments and pointing to manufacturing and infrastructure projects that are starting to get off the ground, it can turn things around with these voters. It’s a steep hill to climb and so far this approach doesn’t seem to be working. In the Washington Post poll, a shocking 76 percent of the white working class believe that Biden has accomplished not very much or little or nothing in his time in office.
Still, this approach is probably more plausible than the other and so far dominant strain of the emerging Biden campaign: a relentless focus on democracy issues, abortion rights, and denouncing “MAGA extremists”. This approach will do well among the white college-educated voters where Democrats made their greatest gains in 2020 but is unlikely to move the needle much among the white working-class voters. Indeed, if the priority was reaching white working-class voters, Democrats would put more emphasis on cultural moderation and speaking to these voters’ concerns on issues around race, gender, crime, immigration and schooling.
That, combined with a continued and creative effort to break through the white working class’ skepticism of Democrats’ economic competence, is the best way for Democrats to forestall a 2024 white working-class surge that could bury the party and, yes, return Donald Trump to the oval office. One would think that forestalling that possibility would induce Democrats to take a few risks on annoying those elements of the party that become apoplectic with rage at any move toward the center. We shall see whether “Joe from Scranton” has it in him.