The Democrats’ Pennsylvania Problem
Something Old, Something New
If the Democrats don’t take the Republican-held Senate seat in Pennsylvania this November, their chances of keeping control of the Senate take a big and perhaps fatal hit. That’s because they need to take at least one seat from the Republicans to compensate for losing any one of three Democratic-held toss-up seats (Arizona, Georgia and Nevada). Pennsylvania is probably their best bet for doing so. Failing that, they are extremely vulnerable to the most dreaded outcome: losing control of both the House and the Senate.
But to take that Pennsylvania seat, they need to solve their Pennsylvania problem—their weakness among working class voters. In the teeth of what President Biden’s pollster John Anzalone has termed “the worst political environment” of his lifetime, the Democrats have to somehow hold together the Biden coalition of voters that managed—just barely, by a single percentage point—to take back the state from the GOP in 2020. That coalition’s success depended critically on Biden’s improved performance among Pennsylvania’s vast population of white working class (noncollege) voters, which must be considered unstable given the political history of the state.
That’s the old part of the Democrats’ working class problem in the state. The new part is their deteriorating support among nonwhite working class voters. Both can be illustrated by a brief review of 2020 election results in the state.
A forthcoming States of Change project report finds the following:
1. Pennsylvania’s 2020 voters were 82 percent white (50 percent white noncollege), 10 percent black, 4 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian/other.
2. The key voter preference shift in Pennsylvania in 2020 was among whites—a 3 point improvement in Democratic margin. In fact, whites were the only racial group among whom Democrats their margin. It was down 2 points among blacks, 15 points among Hispanics and 7 points among Asians/others.
3. Among whites, Democratic margins improved among both working class voters (up 3 points) and college voters (up 4 points).
4. In the other racial groups, it was working class voters who drove their decline in Democratic margin. This was particularly striking among Hispanics where Democratic margins dropped 18 points among working class voters but only 2 points among college voters.
Thus, it would appear that Democrats’ fate in Pennsylvania in 2022 depends heavily on holding their modest gains among white working class voters and stopping the bleeding among nonwhite working class voters.
So how are they doing? Not well, not well at all.
In the most recent Pennsylvania poll from Franklin and Marshall College, just 33 percent of voters view Biden’s job performance positively (excellent/good) vs. 67 percent who term it only fair or poor. From the standpoint of the Democrats’ Pennsylvania problem, the results are even worse. A meager 26 percent of white working class voters view Biden’s performance positively. That does not auger well for keeping the Democrats’ modest white working class gains from 2020.
And here’s the kicker. In this poll, nonwhite working class voters in the state have an identically negative view of Biden’s job in office. This does not provide a solid base for winning back the Hispanic and black working class voters who abandoned the Democrats in 2020 or even for stopping further defections.
It is possible that the overall political environment for Democrats may improve by November. Perhaps attacks on Republican extremism will finally begin to bite, as the January 6th committee hearings continue. Democrats seem to be counting on this but developments so far do not inspire optimism and it seems especially unlikely that this will suddenly endear the Democrats to working class voters.
A more promising line of attack is provided by chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee Rick Scott’s “Plan to Rescue America” which would raise taxes on many working class voters and possibly endanger programs like Medicare and Social Security. And it might help if Democrats could get their act together and actually pass some new legislation of clear benefit to working class voters (e.g., reducing prescription drug costs). But I’m not holding my breath on that one.
In all likelihood though, the overall political environment will continue to be dreadful for the Democrats through November—it may even worsen. So the Democratic candidate in Pennsylvania—as of this writing, it looks like John Fetterman—will need to forge an identity and approach that can break through that environment and reach the working class voters he needs to win.
A good place to start is with these findings from the excellent study of working class voters by Jacobin/Center for Working Class Studies/YouGov:
Working-class voters prefer progressive candidates who focus primarily on bread-and-butter economic issues, and who frame those issues in universal terms. This is especially true outside deep-blue parts of the country. Candidates whose campaigns focused primarily on universalist policy issues such as jobs, health care, and the economy performed better than those who focused on group-specific policies, such as racial justice or immigration. In addition, woke messaging decreased the appeal of other candidate characteristics. For example, candidates employing woke messaging who championed either centrist or progressive economic, health care, or civil rights policy priorities were viewed less favorably than their counterparts who championed the same priorities but opted for universalist messaging.
Of course, establishing this as one’s profile is easier said than done given Democrats’ recent evolution away from universalist messaging and toward foregrounding the equity effects of unambiguously universal programs and deferring to group specific concerns around race, gender and sexuality, even where they are clearly unpopular and dubious as policy. The result has a been a shift in the Democratic party “brand” that has created barriers to Democratic party voting among broad swathes of the working class.
You don’t just see this among the white working class. You can see it in the support for being tough on crime and for funding the police among black working class voters. You can see it among Hispanic working class voters for that and, in southern border regions, for fixing a border security situation that seems out of control. You can see it among Asian working class voters for all that and for stopping the incredibly ill-advised Democratic attacks on gifted programs, test-in elite schools and standardized testing in general, which these voters see as tools for upward mobility. The more working class voters see their values as being at variance with the Democratic party brand, the less likely it is that Democrats will see due credit for even their measures that do—or would--provide benefits to working class voters.
Perhaps Fetterman can successfully forge a new brand consistent with working class values in his (likely) Pennsylvania race. He is probably better positioned than most Democratic politicians to pull this off, given his temperament and background. He will be rowing against the tide however. The Democrats’ Pennsylvania problem may ultimately prove too much for him to overcome.
And that could be it for Democrats’ chances of holding the Senate in 2022.