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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Why Emphasizing Skills Training in Democratic Messaging is Effective

Brian Stryker, a partner of Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, has an e-blast memo on “Campaigns: More Messaging about Skills Training,” which makes a compelling case for “skills training-that has been effective in persuading historical Democratic voters to return to the fold.” As Stryker, who specializes in advanced statistical analysis, turnout modeling, and non-traditional survey methods such as cellphone and Internet research, writes,

Not only has talking about skills training helped win us special elections across blue-collar America in the last year and change, it’s also consistently one of the best-polling reasons to support Democratic candidates across the Midwest/Great Lakes region of the country that swung so hard against us in 2016.

This is not to suggest Democrats stop talking about the value of classroom/college education and the need to get costs/debt down – they still have message value with many voters. It’s more to suggest highlighting alternatives in our messaging and realizing post-recession, many voters view non-college paths as a viable and successful alternative. We do well to hit on this issue that speaks strongly to voters who can’t, don’t want to, don’t want the debt, or for other reasons don’t see themselves sitting in college classrooms for four years.

Stryker makes som specific messaging points regarding skills training, including:

  • Make this more about children, not adults. Campaigns too often conceptualize skills training solely as a job re-training message, when in fact voters react more positively to it when framed as a program for young people in high school or just after it. Voters talk in focus groups about the lack of shop classes or other work-oriented classes in high school any more. Many also raise the example of a child they know who they feel won’t succeed in college but could work hard and earn a living with their hands if given the chance. They also talk about how many high paying jobs are out there in the real world and how they are in demand if young people will just go get the skills needed to succeed.
  • Think of skills training as a cultural touchstone, not just an economic one. Skills training speaks to people on a pocketbook level, for sure. But there’s a deeper cultural resonance among people who value hard work and don’t think hard work includes sitting at a desk. To many voters, it speaks to the honor of putting in a day’s work as a plumber, crane operator, mechanic, or working in advanced manufacturing. Respect for that type of work isn’t something blue-collar voters are hearing from all corners of the Democratic party, at least not as much as they need to be.
  • Frame it in terms of a path for children who college isn’t right for. When presented with this concept in an ad or on paper in a focus groups, non-college voters talk about the “college for all mentality” that doesn’t speak to them or their reality. As a party, we should more explicitly talk about providing alternatives for kids besides just a four-year degree.
      • Acknowledge that college isn’t for everyone. We hear a lot of “college isn’t for everyone” in focus groups from people who did and didn’t go to college. Voters don’t think of that as something to look down on someone for-there’s value to them in skilled trades and hard work-but they that elites look down on people who aren’t willing or able to go to college. Democrats would do well to talk about the inherent value of these paths that we should be providing for kids if college isn’t going to work for them.

Stryker adds that the message polls particularly well “with white blue-collar voters across the Midwest and Great Lakes states” as well as with white Obama-Trump and Rust Belt voters. But it also resonates with voters of color, college-educated whites and swing voters across the nation. He notes that it also “shifts the jobs debate from businesses (tax cuts and red tape/excessive regulation) to workers (raises, better jobs, training), which is more favorable terrain for Democrats. So we shouldn’t just silo this into an education message, it should also be about economic opportunity for kids.

In addition, skills training messaging also helps to educate the public about the important role of trade union training facilities and apprenticeship programs, and that “unions provide people a great path to the middle class. The more voters get that, the more they support the right to organize and a whole host of union priorities.”

Nearly all Democratic candidates can benefit from incorporating thoughtful skills training advocacy and proposals into their messaging — and it’s a message that strengthens the Democratic ‘brand’ as the political party that serves the prioroties of working people.

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