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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Brownstein: Dems’ Last Chance to Win Back Working-Class Whites

Ronald Brownstein explains why “This may be the Democrats’ last chance to recover working-class Whites” at CNN Politics ‘Fault Lines.’:

The blue-collar barricade looms as the most stubborn obstacle to President Joe Bidenenlarging his base of support.

As both candidate and president, Biden has devoted enormous effort to regaining ground with working-class voters, particularly the White voters without college degrees who have drifted away from the Democrats since the 1970s.

But in the campaign, he improved on Hillary Clinton’s anemic 2016 performance with those voters only modestly. And in office, an array of recent polls show he’s failed to increase his approval rating with those non-college-educated White voters much, if at all, beyond the roughly one-third of them who he attracted last November — even though he’s aimed much of his rhetoric and presidential travel at them and formulated an agenda that would shower them with new government benefits.

Biden’s small gains with these voters last fall still helped him tip the critical Rust Belt battlegrounds of Michigan and Wisconsin, and many Democrats say that any progress with them will be critical to the party’s electoral fortunes in 2022 and 2024.

Brownstein adds, “But the continuing resistance confronting even Biden — a 78-year-old White Catholic who highlights his working-class roots at every turn — underscores the challenge an increasingly diverse and culturally liberal Democratic Party will face in recovering as much support as it attracted from these voters as recently as in Barack Obama’s two campaigns….It may be too strong to say Biden represents the Democrats’ last chance to restore their competitiveness with working-class White voters. But it seems likely that if he can’t do so, there are few others in the Democrats’ next generation of emerging leaders who have a better chance.” Further,

Working-class White voters constituted the bedrock of the Democratic coalition from the 1930s to the 1960s but the party has lost ground among them, largely because of issues relating to race and culture, in the half century since. For almost as long, the party has debated how much emphasis to place on recapturing those voters.

This long-running argument has functioned as a proxy for the larger question of whether Democrats should tack toward the center or move left, particularly on social issues. Party centrists often cite the need to hold as many blue-collar White voters as possible, particularly across the Rust Belt, to justify a more moderate approach; liberals often complain that an excessive focus on those generally culturally conservative Whites leads the party to downplay causes, like aggressive action on climate and racial equity, that could energize more younger and non-White voters, particularly in emerging Sun Belt battlegrounds such as Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina and eventually Texas.

Brownstein notes that “Whites without college degrees have steadily declined as a share of all voters by about 2 to 3 percentage points over each four-year presidential term for decades, while Whites with college degrees and especially non-White voters have expanded in turn. (Although those non-college Whites remain the biggest bloc in the electorate, they fell below 40% of the national total for the first time last fall, according to Census Bureau figures.) As both their overall numbers and support for Democrats have declined, these non-college Whites have fallen by half, from nearly 60% of self-identified Democrats in 1996 to only 30% now, according to analysis by the Pew Research Center. (They remain about three-fifths of all Republicans, Pew found.)” Also,

On the other hand, blue-collar Whites remain overrepresented as a share of voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — the three Rust Belt states that will remain pivotal to Democrats’ White House hopes until they can more reliably win the Sun Belt battlegrounds.

Biden’s presidency stands as a potential hinge in this extended debate: If even he can’t significantly improve the party’s position with these voters, it will likely embolden those who want the party to shift its emphasis from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt; from recovering working-class Whites to mobilizing its emerging coalition of younger voters of color as well as college-educated Whites.

Brownstein notes that some progressive political analysts believe Democrats are in danger of worrying too much about white blue collar voters at the expense of  dampening the turnout of voters of color and young voters. However,

It’s difficult to overstate how much Biden has targeted working-class voters, especially White working-class voters, during his presidency. As a recent CNN analysis found, his presidential travel has focused heavily on blue-collar communities, with Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio topping the list of states he has visited. And blue-collar White voters clearly have influenced one of the White House’s defining political strategies: to generally limit Biden’s personal engagement with hot-button cultural issues (from gun control to voting rights) and to overwhelmingly focus his public appearances on kitchen table concerns: shots in the arm, checks in the pocket, shovels in the ground.

Biden routinely calls his economic agenda a “blue-collar blueprint to build America” and his proposals would shower working-class voters of all races with a wide array of new government benefits. The $1.9 trillion stimulus plan included direct $1,400 payments and a vastly expanded tax credit for families with children that benefited almost all voters without a college education. The bipartisan infrastructure plan expected to receive Senate approval Tuesday is centered on blue-collar jobs rebuilding roads, bridges and water systems. The follow-on $3.5 trillion human capital budget bill Democrats plan to advance this week offers working-class families increased subsidies for health insurance and child care, guaranteed paid family leave, expanded Medicare benefits and, for their children, access to universal preschool and two years of free community college. Some experts have described the cumulative package as the largest expansion of direct government assistance to working families since Social Security during the New Deal.

But so far, Biden has very little to show for it in terms of improved approval among White working-class voters. In the latest Gallup Poll for July, his approval rating among Whites without college degrees stood at 34%; he’s exceeded 38% among them in only one of Gallup’s monthly surveys. Surveys released over the last few weeks by Monmouth and Quinnipiac universities, as well as an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, likewise put his approval with those voters at just 32-34%. (Another Marist poll showed him at 37%.) In each case, his approval rating among those non-college-educated White voters was about 20 percentage points less than his standing among White voters with college degrees.

With approval from roughly one-third of working-class Whites, Biden’s support now remains essentially unchanged from his vote among them last November: The major data sources (including the network exit polls conducted by Edison Research, the academic Cooperative Election Study and the Pew Research Center’s validated voters study) all showed him winning almost exactly one-third of them. In each case, that was only slightly better than Clinton’s performance in 2016, when most of the data sources showed her winning just under 3 in 10 of those voters. Biden’s performance also remained well below the roughly 40% of these voters that Democrats won in each presidential race from 1988 to 2008, according to the exit polls.

Previously unpublished details on the 2020 results provided to me by each of those sources offer a more nuanced picture of Biden’s performance. Democratic analysts who believe the party must continue emphasizing blue-collar White voters often argue that the Democrats’ weakness with them is exaggerated by the large number of culturally conservative evangelical Christians in their ranks. And indeed, the previously unpublished results provided to me from the exit polls, the Cooperative Election Study and Pew all show that Biden lost non-college-educated White voters who identify as evangelical Christians by an even larger margin than Clinton did: All three of those sources showed Donald Trump winning about 85% or more of those voters, up from around 80% in 2016. Trump’s support among White non-college evangelicals reached about 90% in Southern states such as Georgia, Texas and North Carolina, according to the exit polls.

By contrast, each of those three studies showed Biden improving over Clinton among the non-college White voters who are not evangelical Christians. Even so, all three studies still showed him losing those non-evangelical blue-collar Whites to Trump and winning only 42% to 47% of them. Comparing each study with its own 2016 results, only in Pew’s did Biden significantly improve over Clinton’s performance with them.

Brownstein quotes Sean McElwee, who argues, “When you are dealing with a demographic group as large as non-college Whites, any sort of difference matters.” In addition,

McElwee says the evidence is that only a very small number of working-class Whites may be open to persuasion from Biden, but “the problem is that increasingly small groups of people are still determinative in politics.” He adds: “If you look at how close these margins are in Michigan or in Pennsylvania, we can’t afford to lose 2 to 3 points with non-college Whites because it is such a big demographic.”

McElwee is optimistic that Biden’s kitchen table agenda ultimately will propel at least some gains with blue-collar voters: In polling that his company Data for Progress has done for the advocacy group Fighting Chance for Families, for instance, Trump voters who have received the child tax credit express much more positive views about it than those who have not.

Anzalone, the Biden pollster, likewise says the picture may look different once families receive more of the tangible benefits Biden is promoting.

There’s a lot of stuff … people won’t see for a long time,” Anzalone says. “The bottom line is this is a president who is committed to create opportunities for working families to succeed and be a bigger part of this economy. … This [political] conversation a year from now may be different. The fact is he’s competing for this demographic, and that’s important.”

Browstein notes additional concerns, including:

Ruy Teixeira, a veteran Democratic analyst now at the Center for American Progress, agrees that economic issues will take Democrats only so far. Biden’s “theory of the case is that we are going to deliver for the masses of honest workers in America … and the people who don’t like us, the suspicious non-college White voters, are going to be able to overcome their cultural reservations about the party,” says Teixeira, who has written extensively on the evolving Democratic coalition. “But the theory that you can just do good economics stuff and ignore the rest … is probably mistaken.”

Teixeira believes Biden’s strategy of downplaying cultural issues is insufficient: He argues that the President must more explicitly reject the left’s positions on issues such as crime, much as Bill Clinton did during the 1990s.

Brownstein concludes that “the ceiling on Biden’s potential recovery with blue-collar White voters, whatever economic agenda he passes, is probably lower than he hopes, though not necessarily lower than it takes to improve his position in some closely contested states. “People think” the effort to gain the electoral high ground for 2022 and 2024 “is going to happen through one swift katana move,” says McElwee, referring to the sleek Japanese sword favored by samurai, “when in fact it’s a really brutal game of inches.”

One comment on “Brownstein: Dems’ Last Chance to Win Back Working-Class Whites

  1. Candace on

    When is the connection going to be made between what Americans voting republican are told and believe and who they vote for?
    There’s lots of sighing over the lies, wild stories and often times admiration for R messaging abilities but when advice is given to democrats by the so called experts there are no suggestions about how to remove the republican propaganda machine from their voters heads. That’s when everyone is supposed to pretend the non stop lies and crazy theories never happened or that they are legit opinions and hope that somehow occasional speeches and offerings will get through at least to some when they likely will never hear you or know what positive changes were made. In fact the more good you do the more extreme of the theory that will come out and the louder it will be turned up to cover it.
    You have to know how these people are being manipulated and then go inside of that world and get them to see it.
    When is that going to happen?

    Voting is about making a choice. If you see someone making a destructive choice for themselves and others like voting republican and you want to try to persuade them to stop doing that, you will not be successful if you ignore whats wrong with voting republican or if agree with their reasoning for doing so. You will not persuade them to vote for a democrat by frequently communicating how its likely that they’ll lose especially because they don’t feel sorry enough for Americans voting republican. These people need to be told why they shouldn’t vote R they don’t need some weak willed buddy taking their side in the culture wars. If veteran democratic analysts like Teixeira think dividing political parties is the way to win elections why aren’t they aiming at the republicans?


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