Guy Molyneux, partner and senior vice president at Peter Hart Research Associates, probes the political attitudes of moderates in the white working-class at The American Prospect. Molyneux, who also directs the trade union research division of Hart Research, argues that Democrats can connect with this pivotal constituency in substantial ways.
Molyneux writes that “Progressives must recognize that the white working class is not a monolith, but contains a wide diversity of political views.” He acknowledges that “About half of non-college-educated whites identify as conservatives, and nearly all of them have become reliable Republican voters.” But he also notes that the white working-class includes “a small group of liberals, who regularly vote for Democrats.” In addition, however,
In between is a critically important subset of potentially persuadable voters, the white working-class moderates, or “WWCMs.” About 35 percent of working-class whites have moderate or “middle of the road” political views, which means WWCMs represent about 15 percent of the overall electorate, or approximately 23 million registered voters. While Trump won the working class conservatives by an overwhelming 85 points (Clinton got a mere 6 percent), he had a much smaller 26-point margin among the WWCMs. That margin is double Mitt Romney’s 13-point edge in 2012, and this swing had a decisive impact. If Clinton had performed as well as Obama with those moderates, it would have doubled her national popular vote margin from 2 percent to 4 percent. Even if she had just lost ground among these voters at the same rate she did among white working-class conservatives, she would almost certainly have won Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
On behalf of Americans for a Fair Deal, Molyneux conducted “a deep study of these moderate working-class white voters,” including focus groups in Montgomery, Alabama; Nashville, Tennessee; Appleton, Wisconsin; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “Rather than focusing on the presidential candidates,” writes Molyneux, “we held broader discussions about the nation and its political system, and explored both the barriers and opportunities that progressives face in working-class communities.” Molyneux reports that the study’s findings confirmed “that progressives could make inroads with these voters in the future, and take an important first step forward in identifying strategies for reaching them.” Further,
…White working-class moderates do perceive a decline of moral values in our nation, but the values these working people fear losing include progressive values as well as conservative ones. Many are disturbed by what they perceive as a rise in selfishness and lack of concern for others, calling for more “compassion” and more support for those who need it, especially veterans and the disabled.
…White working-class voters do not perceive progressives (or Democrats) to better represent their economic concerns. Polling showed that voters overall divided fairly evenly on whether Donald Trump (46 percent) or Hillary Clinton (42 percent) would do a better job of dealing with the economy, yet Trump enjoyed a 27-point advantage (57 percent to 30 percent) on this question among non-college whites, and an enormous 42-point advantage among non-college white men. This result cannot be explained by Trump’s intermittent economic populism. In 2015, by 73 percent to 27 percent, white working-class voters said that the federal government, far from helping them, had made it harder for them to achieve their goals, and by a 4-to-1 ratio said that the federal government’s economic impact was negative.
…we saw no evidence that these voters have rejected a progressive economic policy agenda. As confirmed in numerous polls, many elements of that agenda—higher taxes on the wealthy, reining in Wall Street, ensuring paid leave for workers—are popular. But these voters’ somewhat abstract desire for more progressive economic policies is undercut and overwhelmed by their deeply negative view of government, which includes a strong aversion to spending and government intervention in the economy. While they are economic progressives, in important respects they are also fiscal conservatives.
“To a disturbing extent,” continues Molyneux, “these working-class voters have rejected politics as a meaningful way of improving their communities or nation…It would be hard to overstate the disconnect WWCMs feel from current politicians, whom they see not only as greedy and self-interested, but also as out of touch with the people they are supposed to represent. The principal political division perceived by these working-class voters is not between Democrats and Republicans, but between politicians and ordinary people.” He adds:
They see Democrats as working on behalf of a series of interest groups rather than the public interest. In their view, the allocation of government benefits reflects political calculation, not any moral or economic principles, with both parties lavishing benefits on their respective constituencies. The GOP version (handouts for the wealthy) may be less attractive, but from the white working-class perspective both stories translate into “not for me.”
And Democrats emphatically do not have to “win” the majority of the white working-class. “Boosting white non-college moderates’ support for Clinton by just 5 percent or 6 percent would have delivered her the presidency,” notes Molyneux. “Democrats can lose the votes of every one of the 36 percent who are uneasy with America’s increasing diversity, and still make the progress required to win elections.
But Democrats have to get smarter about how to reach working-class moderates. As Molyneux puts it, “Community organizations and non-elected community leaders must be the “tip of the spear” as progressives seek to engage white working-class communities.” While proposals to make college more afordable and community colleges tuition-free are popular, Molyneux argues,
Many working-class voters (and others) worry that public schools focus exclusively on preparing students for college, while neglecting the equally important task of preparing non-college-bound students for successful transitions into the workforce. They enthusiastically endorse proposals to provide quality vocational education, apprenticeships, and other programs that would expand opportunities for young Americans—including many of their own children and grandchildren—who are unlikely to pursue a four-year degree after high school.
Going forward, Democratic candidates must pay more attention to the concerns of working-class moderates. Molyneux concludes that “we did find clear openings that give progressives a chance for productive dialogue and engagement with the white working class…If progressives are willing to engage them in a smart and targeted way, they will make significant gains within white working-class communities in the years ahead.”