washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Morrison: The Best Way for Democrats to Win Working-Class Voters

The following article by Matt Morrison, executive director of Working America, an organizing arm of the AFL-CIO, is cross-posted from the New York Times.

When we asked 4,035 working-class voters in battleground races to name an elected official who was fighting for them, the top response was not a Republican or a Democrat. It was “no one.”

That goes a long way toward explaining why debates among political elites about the strategic direction Democrats must take to win in 2018 and 2020 continue to miss the point. Should Democrats pursue moderate or liberal policies? Should they persuade white working-class voters or mobilize a diverse base? These arguments feel utterly irrelevant to the daily choices of working-class voters.

How do we know? Since Donald Trump’s election, my organization, Working America, a political organizing arm of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., has spoken with 450,000 voters across 17 states. The overwhelming sentiment from these conversations was captured by an African-American voter in central Ohio named Carol (the voters’ last names weren’t provided). Asked to consider the difference in her economic well-being when Democrats are in power versus Republicans, she replied, “Does it even matter?”

Carol, and tens of millions of working people just like her, harbor a deep skepticism that politicians of either party can deliver any kind of meaningful change for them. Our current politics fail to engage working people in a conversation about what matters to them and to draw connections between their lived experience and the reason they should cast a ballot in the first place.

Working-class people share common anxieties about their economic security. Like Carol, they see few solutions from the politicians in either party seeking their vote.

Darren, a white voter in his mid-40s who lives in Philadelphia, said that “we mean nothing” to politicians. “Regular people don’t have money.”

Working-class voters like Darren, a longtime Democrat who voted for Mr. Trump, aren’t ideological; they’re fed up and politically adrift. Persuadable voters like Darren and pessimistic Democrats like Carol are looking for politicians with tangible solutions to help the majority of Americans who have been left out of the country’s growing prosperity.

A voter in Pennsylvania’s 18th District — where Conor Lamb won a special election this year — said, “I care about right here,” as he pointed to his feet on his doorstep. “Tell me what they’re going to do right here.”

Policy prescriptions and white papers don’t overcome this cynicism. The growing number of people living in areas with dwindling newspaper subscriptions or with Sinclair-owned television stations that spend more time on “must run” segments and less time on local issues never even hear the policies in the first place.

For Democrats, simply turning up the volume on political communications through these same channels has not quelled the distrust or broken through. My organization has found that we can get so much more with a different approach: Start where the voters are.

First, our experience running a large-scale, year-round field canvass reveals a somewhat obvious truth. Beginning the conversation by asking, “What matters to you?” instead of telling voters what should matter to them gets a more receptive audience.

Next, when we introduce new information by telling voters about something they don’t know rather than telling them that what they think they know is wrong, you can see the light come on.

Elaine, 70, a white Trump voter in Grove City, Ohio, told us she watches Fox News “in the morning till I go to bed.” Yet when we told her about our push to raise wages and improve working standards, something clicked for her. She shared that her adult children are struggling with low pay and poor benefits.

Like Elaine, two-thirds of Ohio Trump supporters agreed, when we asked them last summer, with a battery of progressive economic policies, including ending employers’ treating workers as independent contractors, so that they’re not saddled with tax and benefit costs, and measures that make it easier to unionize. They had just never heard any politician addressing these issues. The irony is that even where there’s ubiquitous content, people feel less informed. But when swing voters like Elaine can discuss and reason out loud, they can connect powerful stories from their own lives to pragmatic progressive policies — only if they hear about them.

We can’t assume voters like Elaine, Darren and Carol will pull the lever for a progressive in 2018. For this approach to be successful, it must be grounded in more than anecdote and observation. We need evidence that’s produced by clinical research about what changes minds.

An authoritative analysis by the political scientists David Broockman and Josh Kalla comparing nine Working America campaigns with 40 other clinical experiments measuring all major forms of voter communication validated our approach. By engaging in sustained organizing with voters identified via clinical analysis as the best targets, even in communities saturated with campaign communications, we were able to persuade swing voters to vote for Democrats in 2016 in places such as Ohio and to mobilize the party’s base voters in places such as North Carolina.

The recipe is simple: credibility derived from listening, compelling solutions, new information that breaks through and thoughtful analytics. And it works with working-class swing voters and disaffected Democrats equally.

Winning back the confidence of these voters is essential for gaining control of Congress and for building strength in the states ahead of redistricting fights after 2020.

Putting a check on the White House in 2018 won’t fix what’s broken. Radically changing how voters perceive their own agency in relation to politics will. Follow this recipe and progressives can win and govern for a generation.

One comment on “Morrison: The Best Way for Democrats to Win Working-Class Voters

  1. Candace on

    I am one of the people this article would be talking about. I am not a minority, although there aren’t many Italians out here.
    The main frustration I have with Democrat politicians is that they don’t stand up to Republican politicians or have any understanding of the determination Republicans have to stop Democrats from using government to do good for the people in this country or anywhere in the world.
    or in other words: its great that you’re concerned about my financial anxieties but what are you going to do about the Republicans?

    Trump said he could shoot someone and get away with it. I could believe that not so much because of his supporters but because of the Democrats. They have so far let Republicans get away with nearly everything. And when it doesn’t look like they’re following the cowed script Republicans have given them and get a little uppity, “DT’s fake news” will say they’re being Trumpian or just looking at 2020. And that’s it. Republicans who say words indicating they might try to think outside the pack are called, “Republicans of Conscience” Why is that?


    So anyway, I respect what this organization is doing. Talking to people in person is always better than the Internet for everyone. But it is surprising to me that when doing these kinds of studies no one ever asks questions about how their perception of a candidate’s views on wars past, current and possible future factored into their decision on who to vote for. Not that this would be the only reason to ask but the working class has a decent percentage veterans, they know veterans or have kids that will end up in the military, so what gives?
    McCain, Romney and Hillary Clinton were all considered eager for war and they lost. Popular opinion was somehow that Trump was less likely to get us into war than Hillary and he won. Obama was initially the antiwar president, who became mainly a force of restraint on the war machine still moving in many directions.

    Another reason I mention this is that America First became a popular sentiment out of anger over the life cost of nation building and that the government is always broke when it comes to taking care of Americans–certainly veterans. And probably backlash from the reasoning for being at war with Iraq: to liberate the Iraqis, the Shia. We were always hearing about the Shia back then. You were selfish and spoiled if you didnt support the war.

    I think Republicans initially invited White Nationalism into our government because it was considered useful against Obama and as a advertisement and purpose for continuing wars in the Middle East when there is no justification. I think its also comforting to people who white identify that would otherwise be very worried about how our crumbling government is attacking the people and then creating foreign policies that reeally look like they’re designed to get the rest of the world to unite against us into war.

    Trump is going to fire Sessions after the election and will probably fire Rosenstein. Trump has said that he/ the Republican party will be able to do a lot more after the election. So ho hum, don’t give it another thought. it just makes political sense? If you take him seriously, then you have to ask why he’s so confident about that and what the Republicans plan on doing after the election that they couldn’t before and will they do it before or after Putin visits in late November.

    And keep in mind that Republicans are on their best election season behavior right. After the election with their supreme court judge hard not to expect that they’ll go in for the kill.
    If I’m wrong, Good.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.