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The Democrats’ Working Class Problem Intensifies
It Doesn’t Look Like It’s Going Away Any Time Soon
These are hard times for America’s historic party of the working class—as in, they keep on bleeding support among these voters. The just-released New York Times/Siena poll provides the latest evidence for this trend. Among likely voters, Democrats’ generic Congressional ballot support among college-educated and working class (noncollege) voters are mirror images of each other. Democrats have a 15 point deficit among working class voters but a 14 point advantage among college voters—almost a 30 point gap. (The AEI demographic group tracker averages poll results and confirms an unusually large working class-college gap.)
The Times/Siena poll also asked a 2024 trial heat question pitting Biden against Trump. This showed the same pattern: college-educated voters favored Biden by 20 points, while working voters preferred Trump by 16 points. Keep in mind that working class voters are likely to far outnumber college voters in that election just as they did in 2020 and as they are likely to do this November.
Putting these results in context is instructive. In the 2012 election, the working class-college gap was a mere 4 points; Obama carried college-educated voters by 6 points, but also carried working class voters by 2 points. By 2020, Democrats were losing working class voters by 4 points and the gap had widened to 22 points. Lest anyone think that declining working class support was solely due to white working class voters moving away from the Democrats, it should be noted that nonwhite working class voters moved away from Democrats by 19 margin points over the time period.
However, it is true that the education gap is exceptionally large among whites. In the Times/Siena data, Democrats are losing white working class voters by 32 points while carrying white college voters by 7 points. And these white working class voters still loom very, very large in most states, including ones with key contests in November’s election. Echelon Insights, which anticipates another high turnout election, has released estimates of the demographic composition of voters this November. They expect that voters nationally will be 41 percent white noncollege and higher still in states like Wisconsin (56 percent), Ohio (53 percent), Pennsylvania (49 percent) and even Nevada (46 percent).
Echelon comments, correctly I think, on the implications of their turnout and voter composition analysis:
Which party will benefit from higher turnout or a more diverse electorate? The answer might surprise you. In the 2020 election, high turnout led to a surprisingly close election with a surge in support for Donald Trump among low-propensity Hispanic voters in particular. Rising turnout is being driven by a working class, non-college electorate that Republicans have been doing better with in recent elections, as well as an aging electorate, creating more high-turnout voters over the age of 65. When it comes to the conventional wisdom about high versus low voter turnout, all bets are off.
It is not hard to see what might be driving the current working class drift toward the Republicans. First, there is the economy. The recent upturn in inflation, still near a 40 year high, is squeezing already-squeezed working class budgets. It cannot be emphasized enough that in the last year real wages for workers have actually gone down because wage increases have not kept pace with inflation.
Not surprisingly, the economy and the cost of living are by far the top issues for working class voters. In the Times/Siena poll, 49 percent cited these issues, compared to 37 percent among college-educated voters. The closest other issue among working class voters was immigration at 7 percent.
But Democrats haven’t run a campaign aimed at these working class concerns. As a recent headline put it in the New York Times, “Democrats Spent $2 Trillion to Save the Economy. They Don’t Want to Talk About It.” Instead, they have elected to run a campaign focused on three things: abortion rights, gun control and safeguarding democracy. This appeared to be a strategy aimed at socially liberal, college-educated voters among whom these issues are highly salient. No doubt this has helped shore up their support among these voters and contributed to Democrats’ maintaining strong margins among the college-educated. But among working class voters, whose concerns are more mundane and economically-driven, these issues are far less salient.
It seems unlikely that the Democrats’ approach will work any better as we get closer to the election. Abortion rights, which has by far been the dominant issue in Democratic ad spending, may have reached the limits of its effectiveness. Many Republican candidates are softening their abortion positions and avoiding association with outright bans, which may help explain the apparent movement of independent women back toward the GOP.
As for gun control, it is clearly being overshadowed by the crime issue where the Democrats are hugely vulnerable and Republicans have released a barrage of campaign advertising. In the just-released Politico/Morning Consult poll, more voters say crime will be a major factor in their voting decision than say the same about abortion.
As for safeguarding democracy, which for Democrats means an unrelenting focus on Trump, the “Big Lie” and the January 6th hearings, this just has much less juice than Democrats like to think it does. Indeed when normie voters think about threats to democracy, they are just not thinking about it in the same way that Democrats do. As Nate Cohn notes in his analysis of the recent Times/Siena poll:
While 71 percent of registered voters agreed that democracy was “under threat,” only about 17 percent of voters described the threat in a way that squares with discussion in mainstream media and among experts — with a focus on Republicans, Donald J. Trump, political violence, election denial, authoritarianism, and so on.
Instead, most people described the threat to democracy in terms that would be very unfamiliar to someone concerned about election subversion or the Jan. 6 insurrection… When respondents were asked to volunteer one or two words to summarize the current threat to democracy, government corruption was brought up most often — more than Mr. Trump and Republicans combined….Instead, they point most frequently to a longstanding concern about the basic functioning of a democratic system: whether government works on behalf of the people.
That certainly sums up the overriding priority of working class voters: a government that works on behalf of the people. No amount of talk about abortion, gun control and January 6th is likely to convince them that Democrats are providing that when their “lived experience”, as it were, is quite different.