Since November’s elections, President Biden has been in Michigan, Arizona, Kentucky and Ohio, touting the job-creating wonders of three big bills he has signed: the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act; the Chips and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act. And he has been at pains to emphasize the blue-collar benefits of these bills: “The vast majority of [the] jobs … that we’re going to create,” he said, “don’t require a college degree.”
There’s a good reason for Biden to try this tack. Despite Democrats’ unexpectedly good performance in the midterms, there were abundant signs of continued weakness in an absolutely vital part of their coalition: working-class (noncollege) voters. Democrats’ weakness among White working-class voters is well known. According to AP/NORC VoteCast data, Democrats lost the White working-class vote by 25 points in 2020 and 33 points in 2022.
Less well-understood is Democrats’ emerging weakness among non-White working-class voters. Between 2012 and 2020, Democrats’ advantage among these voters declined by 18 points, with a particularly sharp shift in 2020 and among Hispanics. VoteCast data indicates that Democrats’ margin among non-White working-class voters declined 14 points between 2020 and 2022.
Democrats lost the overall working-class vote by a solid 13 points in 2022. When Republicans claim they are becoming the party of the multiracial working class, this is less far-fetched than most Democrats think. In fact, by this data, the GOP already is. No wonder Biden is worried — and he’s right to be.
But will Biden’s turn to the working class work?
Maybe. But then again, maybe not. It is an uncomfortable fact that, despite the very tight labor market of the past two years, most workers have lost ground relative to inflation. And, while the administration touts the projected openings of semiconductor, battery and electric-vehicle plants tied to provisions of the administration’s semiconductor and climate bills, manufacturing today employs less than one-tenth of the country’s services-dominated working class. That is unlikely to change.
Some “green” jobs in solar- and wind-farm construction will be generated by the administration’s spending commitments, but the record so far on these jobs has been spotty. Generally, renewables projects have created short-term construction jobs that bear little resemblance to the jobs workers rightfully aspire to or to the high wage jobs in the fossil-fuel industry they are supposed to replace. A New York Times investigation of jobs in the solar and wind sectors described them as looking less like the mid-century blue-collar jobs that lifted workers into the middle class and more like jobs with “grueling work schedules, few unions, middling wages and limited benefits.”
Biden and his party would do well to remember the key reason they outperformed at the polls in 2022: voters’ distaste for nutty Republicans rather than love for what Democrats have done or stand for. As several studies have shown, Trump-endorsed, MAGA-ish candidates managed to wipe out a good chunk of the expected swing toward the GOP, losing roughly 5 points at the polls relative to more conventional Republicans.
Democrats cannot count on that to continue. Trumpian influence is diminishing inside the GOP but other, less flawed messengers lie in wait to pick up the populist banner. They won’t make such easy targets. Meanwhile, Democrats’ ability to focus on Trump’s misdeeds has been undermined by the recent discovery of classified documents in Biden’s Delaware home and former D.C. office.
Democrats should think instead about trying to shore up their many weaknesses that cut sharply among working-class voters. Democrats went into the last election with double digit disadvantages on immigration and the border (-24 percent), reducing crime (-20 percent), valuing hard work (-15 percent) and being patriotic (-10 percent), according to polling from Third Way.
Change will not be easy. Democrats are very liberal, especially on social issues. Gallup data shows that liberal self-identification has more than doubled among Democrats since 1994, going from 25 percent to 54 percent. And among White Democrats, there has been an astonishing 37 point increase in professed liberalism over the time period. White Democrats are now far more liberal than their Black and Hispanic counterparts.
That deeply affects the image of the party at election time. More voters now think Democrats have moved too far to the left than think the Republicans have moved too far to the right. The fact of the matter is that the cultural left, which is heavily dominated by the burgeoning ranks of liberal Whites, has managed to associate the party with views on crime, immigration, policing, free speech, and, of course, race and gender that are quite far from those of the median voter. That’s a success for the cultural left but an electoral liability for the party.
The idea that Democrats can just turn up the volume on economic issues and ignore sociocultural issues when they are viewed as out of the mainstream is absurd. Culture matters, and the issues to which they are connected matter. They are a hugely important part of how voters assess who is on their side and who is not — whose philosophy they can identify with and whose they can’t.
Thus, to just get in the door with many working-class voters and have them consider their economic pitch, Democrats need to convince these voters that they are not looked down on, their concerns are taken seriously and their views on culturally freighted issues will not be summarily dismissed as unenlightened. With today’s Democratic Party, unfortunately, that is difficult. Resistance has been, and is, stiff to any compromise that might involve moving to the center on such issues, a problem that talking more about economic issues simply ignores.
If the Democrats could do that and had a strong economic case to make, they would be formidable. If not, the 2024 election is likely to be pretty brutal.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
There’s been a lot of buzz about a recent Ezra Klein podcast spinning a particular fantasy about the 2024 presidential race, so I examined it from a historical perspective at New York:
Pundits once loved the idea that somebody might challenge and defeat Joe Biden for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination. However, those hopes died after primary deadlines came and went while the Dean Phillips candidacy went nowhere very fast. The 46th president is going to lock up enough pledged delegates to make him the nominee very soon, and for all the private kvetching about the polls and the incumbent’s age, Democrats are for the most part publicly gearing down for a good, vicious Biden-Trump rematch.
But fantasies of something different happening haven’t totally gone away, and they don’t entirely depend on the remote possibility of Donald Trump being denied the GOP nomination because he’s a convicted felon or a bankrupt loser. The New York Times’ Ezra Klein has suggested Democratic fears about Biden’s age could be addressed by a real unicorn of a development in August: a wide-open Democratic National Convention that would choose a Biden replacement based on who wowed the delegates in Chicago.
Klein doesn’t go into great detail about how this would happen (he promises to do so in a future podcast), but his premise is that Biden would voluntarily withdraw from the contest and release his delegates not too long before the convention without dictating a successor (like, say, his hand-picked vice-president, Kamala Harris, who would presumably have to fight for the nomination if she wanted it without a heavy-handed presidential assist). In that case, Klein says, Democrats could choose from a deep bench of talented politicians in an unscripted televised drama that would capture a nation that had been dreading a 2020 rematch.
The first thing to understand about this scenario is that it would be entirely unprecedented. Yes, as Klein notes, conventions rather than primaries chose major-party nominees from 1831 through 1968 (from 1972 on, nearly all states have chosen delegates via primaries or caucuses with the limited exception of the Democratic experiment with “super-delegates”). But in each and every case, the conventions were preceded by carefully planned candidacies, some as sure a bet as any multiple-primary winner; the apparent spontaneity of the choice of a nominee was often as contrived as the bought-and-paid-for “spontaneous demonstrations” for candidates that abruptly ended in 1972. In addition, long before primaries dominated nomination contests, they still on occasion had a big impact on the outcome (way back in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft slugged it out in a long series of primaries before dueling in a closely divided convention that wound up splitting the GOP).
The last major-party convention in which the presidential nominee wasn’t known in advance (putting aside a few convention “revolts” that were doomed to fail) was the 1976 Republican confab. And there the gathering was the very opposite of “open”: All but a handful of delegates were pledged to Gerald Ford or Ronald Reagan, and the battle was over that undecided handful. Most delegates had zero “choice” over the nominee. There was “drama,” but no sense in which the party was free to choose from an assortment of possible candidates who proved their mettle at the convention itself. The only surprise was Reagan’s decision to announce a proposed running mate (Pennsylvania senator Richard Schweiker) before the presidential balloting. This was an innovation at the time, which (as it happens) failed.
Yes, the further back you go, there were plenty of major-party conventions that were “deliberative,” in the sense of the nomination not being locked up in advance. Occasionally, the outcome was something of a surprise, most recently in 1940, when a whirlwind propaganda effort by a few wire-pullers and packed galleries produced Indiana utility executive Wendell Willkie as a Republican nominee. But again, the delegates themselves weren’t generally free to deliberate, since many were controlled by state political leaders and others were chosen in primaries.
If you want a truly wide-open convention, the eternal ideal is the Democratic convention held one century ago in New York. The 1924 gathering featured 103 ballots before the exhausted remainder of delegates who hadn’t run out of money or patience chose dark horse James W. Davis as its nominee. Davis went on to win a booming 29 percent of the general-election popular vote and lost every state outside the former Confederacy.
That brings to mind another note of caution about the idea of an “open convention”: a nominee chosen not by primary voters or by a consensus of party leaders is just as likely to produce a calamitous general-election campaign as some burst of enthusiasm among united partisans. The last multi-ballot Democratic convention nominated Adlai Stevenson in 1952. He lost. The last multi-ballot Republican convention chose Thomas Dewey in 1944. He lost. The record of nominees chosen by deliberative (much less contested) conventions isn’t that great generally. Gerald Ford (winner of the aforementioned 1976 Republican convention) lost. His vanquisher, Jimmy Carter, lost in 1980 after a tough primary challenge and then a convention full of buyer’s remorse. The biggest general-election winners in living memory (Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1996, Barack Obama in 2008) were the products of conventions that were virtual coronations.
The 2024 convention will end on August 22 (assuming it doesn’t go into overtime like the 1924 affair), leaving ten weeks before the general election on November 5. Would a Democratic Party fresh from an “open convention” be able get its act together in that span of time, particularly if the nominee is someone other than a universally known figure? What if there are Democrats who are unhappy with the nominee? When does that get sorted out?
I’m interested in learning more about “open convention” scenarios. But at first and even second blush it seems a far riskier proposition for Democrats than just going with the incumbent president of the United States.