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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Candidate Template for Dems Seeking Working-Class Votes

From “To Win, House Democrats Need More Matt Cartwrights. Wait, Who? Our new research shows that the Scranton–Wilkes Barre Democrat has the formula that can attract more working-class voters” by Dustin Guastella and Isaac Rabbani at The New Republic’s ‘The Soapbox’:

Cartwright represents Pennsylvania’s 8th (formerly 17th) district, which encompasses the deindustrialized hubs of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. The district swung for Trump by 10 points in 2016 and four points in 2020. Its median income is about $63,000, below the national median, and only 28 percent of Cartwright’s constituents hold a bachelor’s degree, with a significant share still working in manufacturing.

Beltway conventional wisdom would have us believe that a candidate like Cartwright couldn’t win unless he sounded as much like a Republican as possible. But Cartwright doesn’t sound like a Republican at all. He ran on fighting inflation by investing in local manufacturing and expanding Medicare. He backed ambitious infrastructure proposals, far-reaching spending on education, reforms to reduce drug prices, and public health–based solutions to the opioid crisis. Railing against corporate greed and price gouging has been central to his campaign strategy. And he’s co-sponsored legislation to expand Social Security.

So what’s the secret to Cartwright’s success, and can his winning formula be deployed elsewhere? A new study that we helped author from the Center for Working Class Politics sought to answer these questions. What we found was that, for Democrats to have any hope of winning a lasting majority, they need more Cartwrights.

Guastella and Rabbani, both researchers for the Center for Working-Class Politics, explain the experiment they conducted “To suss out what messages and policy platforms are most successful with working-class voters,” and share some of their conclusions:

First, regardless of their partisan allegiance, working-class voters respond positively to candidates who focus on jobs, including those who run on an expansive policy to provide a federal jobs guarantee. Jobs-focused candidates were particularly effective when they combined this policy platform with anti-elite, populist messaging that calls out the wealthy for rigging the system against working Americans. This combative, economic-populist messaging was particularly effective among key groups that Democrats struggle with most: manual workers, rural voters, and low-engagement voters.

Second, our survey also found that working-class voters respond most favorably to candidates from similar class backgrounds, and least favorably to candidates who come from an elite educational or economic background. In other words, working-class voters want working-class candidates.

Finally, the right-wing messages that we tested did not undermine the appeal of jobs-focused campaigns, economic-populist language, or non-elite, working-class candidates. In fact, our study suggests that running on a progressive jobs policy actually grows more effective in the face of certain opposition messaging. (Voters appear to see through some Republican attempts to pivot from their issues.)

The authors note that “In the 2022 midterms, only 18 percent of swing-seat Dems even mentioned jobs in their TV ads, and Cartwright was among them. His campaign put jobs front and center, emphasizing the need to invest in domestic manufacturing and transport infrastructure. He pitted workers against corporate greed—successfully casting his opponent in the latter role—and touted his record trying to expand Social Security.” Further,

The Democrats need more Matt Cartwrights, for two main reasons. First, Democrats cannot win a Senate majority without consistently winning in states where non–college educated workers are the overwhelming majority. In 2024, for example, Democrats will be defending vulnerable incumbents in West Virginia, Ohio, and Nevada (among others), where these workers make up 76, 69, and 72 percent of adults. Compare those numbers to the national average of 54 percent, and the urgency of reaching non-college workers is suddenly thrown into stark relief.

Second, while it’s true that the majority of Americans live in urban or suburban congressional districts, where levels of liberalism, education, and income are higher, the majority of districts themselves are not so. Only 43 percent of congressional districts have a median household income above the national median. And in 90 percent of districts, a majority of adults do not have a bachelor’s degree; among competitivecongressional districts, that number rises to 92 percent. A strategy that prioritizes high-income and highly educated districts will inevitably make Democrats a minoritarian party.

The case for more Cartwrights, then, is just this: His unique combination of populist messaging and progressive economic policy aimed at working people can win because in electoral terms, much of America resembles his district. Cartwright’s success comes down to his ability to convince blue-collar Democrats to stay in the tent. Democrats need to make a choice going forward: Focus on working-class voters and work toward building a solid majority, or continue to squeak by—and risk government by an ever more dangerous opposition.

We can’t clone Matt Cartwright. But Democratic candidate recruitment teams should take note of the findings Guastella and Rabbani present and try to find and develop candidates with similar backgrounds and skill sets.

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