The Democrats’ Working Class Voter Problem
It’s Getting Worse
Republicans have increasingly been talking about becoming the party of the multiracial working class. This is less far-fetched than you might think. After all, in a loose sense they already are. In the 2020 election, Trump carried the overall working class (noncollege) vote by 4 points (Catalist two party vote), about the same margin he had in 2016. The same data source also shows Republicans carrying the working class Congressional vote in three of the last four elections (the exception was 2018 when the working class vote was split down the middle between Republicans and Democrats).
Democrats have generally comforted themselves that their poor performance among the working class was purely a matter of white working class voters, who they presumed were motivated by retrograde racial and cultural attitudes. But since 2012, nonwhite working class voters have shifted away from the Democrats by 18 margin points, with a particularly sharp shift in the last election and particularly among Hispanics. This gives Democrats’ nonchalance about their losing record among working class voters a bit of a whistling past the graveyard quality.
Data since the 2020 election confirm a pattern of declining Democratic support among the nonwhite working class. Put another way: education polarization, it’s not just for white voters anymore. As a result, Democratic strength among the multiracial working class continues to weaken.
In a just-released Morning Consult/Politico poll, voters were broken down into three categories: noncollege, Bachelor’s degree only and postgraduate. Biden’s approval rating was just 37 percent among all working class voters, but 55 percent among the BA group and 63 percent among the postgraduates. Other polls show similar splits, with Biden faring far more poorly among working class than college-educated voters.
A recent Data for Progress poll shows this pattern extending to the generic Congressional ballot and a hypothetical rematch between Biden and Trump in 2024. Working class voters favor Republicans for Congress by 9 points while college voters prefer Democrats by 17 points. Unsurprisingly, there is a big education gap between white college and working class voters. But there are also wide gaps between working class and college nonwhite voters: Hispanic working class voters are 11 margin points less supportive of Democrats than their college-educated counterparts while black working class voters’ Democratic support is 31 margin points less than college blacks’.
The pattern is similar for the Biden-Trump rematch. Working class voters prefer Trump in 2024 by 7 points, while the college-educated prefer Biden by 21 points. And Hispanic working voters are 17 margin points less supportive of Biden than college Hispanics while working class blacks are 34 points less supportive of Biden than college-educated blacks. Remarkably, 40 percent of working class Hispanics currently say they would vote for Trump, along with 22 percent of working class blacks. These figures strongly suggest that the Democrats’ working class voter problem can no longer be fenced off as a white voter problem.
More bluntly, this performance among working class voters should be unacceptable for a party of the left. After all, what is the point of a left party that cannot command the loyalty of the working class and therefore plausibly claim to represent its interests? And in raw electoral terms, worsening performance among working class voters makes the Democrats’ quest for political dominance essentially impossible, since the share of working class voters in the country is 70 percent larger than the share of college-educated voters. The best they could hope for is to generate a stalemate by continually increasing their share of the college-educated vote while Republicans do, in fact, more and more become the party of the multiracial working class.
That seems an unpleasant prospect on many levels. Better to fight the good fight for the working class vote. That starts with Democrats’ pressing need to rebrand themselves on cultural issues, where they are decidedly out of step with working class opinion on issues around crime, immigration, race, gender, schools and language policing. They are not close to that yet—Biden’s tentative move to the center in his recent State of the Union address is but the barest of beginnings.
Beyond that, they can hope that inflation subsides which hits working class voters very hard. And they can hope that the GOP’s very serious weaknesses as an aspiring party of the working class come to the fore as, for example, in Senator Rick Scott’s absurd and wildly unpopular idea that Republicans should campaign on making everybody pay income taxes--which would raise taxes on half the country.
But relying on your opponents’ mistakes—or general craziness—is never a good strategy. The Democrats would be much better served by acknowledging they’re bleeding working class voters and trying like hell to make their party more attractive to those voters.