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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: The Coming Working-Class Election

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, politics editor of The Liberal Patriot newsletter and co-author with John B. Judis of the new Book “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?,” is cross-posted from The Liberal Patriot:

Here is a simple truth: how working-class (noncollege) voters move will likely determine the outcome of the 2024 election. They will be the overwhelming majority of eligible voters (around two-thirds) and, even allowing for turnout patterns, only slightly less dominant among actual voters (around three-fifths). Moreover, in all six key swing states—Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—the working-class share of the electorate, both as eligible voters and as projected 2024 voters, will be higher than the national average.

It follows that significant deterioration in working-class support could put Biden in a very deep hole nationally and key states. Conversely, a burgeoning advantage among working-class voters would likely put Trump in a dominant position.

This very trend explains a lot about Biden’s current poor position in general election polls, where he is running behind Trump both nationally and in most swing states. In 2020, Biden lost working-class voters by 4 points, while carrying college-educated voters by 18 points. Biden would have lost the working class by more (and perhaps the election) if he hadn’t actually done slightly better than Hillary Clinton among white working-class voters; among nonwhite working-class voters, especially Hispanic voters, he did sharply worse.

In current polls, we see a marked decline in Biden’s support among bothcomponents of the working-class vote with the decline among nonwhite working-class voters if anything larger than the decline among white working-class voters. The result has been a double digit falloff in Biden’s margin among the working class as a whole. The Split Ticket crosstab aggregator has Biden losing working-class voters to Trump by 14 points, a 10-point drop from 2020 and the New York Times/Siena poll has Biden’s deficit among these voters at 17 points, 13 points worse than 2020.

This sets up some unforgiving political arithmetic. The same polls show modest increases in the Democrats’ advantage among college-educated voters, but not nearly as large as the fall off among working-class voters. And it should be stressed that, given the preponderance of working-class voters in the electorate, to truly set off widening deficits among the working class Democrats would need margin gains among the college-educated that are 50 percent larger than their margin losses among working-class voters. Not impossible, but a steep hill to climb.

Inspection of results from swing-state polls indicates the same basic pattern: big Biden losses among working-class voters relative to 2020, with approximate stability or slight gains among college-educated—not nearly enough to counter-balance the working-class losses.

It therefore seems obvious that the key to victory for either side in 2024 lies in their relative performance among working-class voters. For Biden, he needs to bring down his deficit among these voters so it is much closer to the modest levels of 2020, allowing his college voter advantage to be decisive. For Trump, if he is able to keep his working-class advantage at current levels—or even increase it!—he has an excellent chance of surviving even a very large advantage for Biden among college-educated voters.

All of this may be true, but will we actually see an election campaign focused on working-class voters? That remains to be seen. Right now, it looks more like a “Brahmin Left” vs. “Populist Right” election.

Brahmin Left” is a term coined by economist Thomas Piketty and colleagues to characterize Western left parties increasingly bereft of working-class voters and increasingly dominated by highly educated voters and elites. The Brahmin left has evolved over many decades and certainly includes today’s Democratic Party.

As a Brahmin left party, the temptation is great for Democrats to lean into their emerging strengths and just hope for the best among working-class voters. That is the natural inclination of the elites and activists who now dominate the party.

And indeed there are a couple of potent issues Democrats are planning to run on that are dear to the hearts of their Brahmin left base: abortion rights and defending democracy (“Democracy is on the ballot”, etc.) While for sure these are good issues for the Democrats, especially for your college-educated next door neighbor who would sooner take a bath in hot coals than vote for Trump, it must be recognized that these issues are not as potent and overriding for working-class voters. They are less convinced—far less convinced—that a great analogy for America today is Weimar Germany, 1932. Their concerns are more mundane, connected to their everyday material concerns and relatively conservative values.

So it would be a mistake for Democrats to take the easy road and turn it up to 11on the issues that they know their Brahmin left base adores. The harder but surer road is to focus on the working class and make the sale.

How might that be done? That starts with the economy and the cost of living, these voters’ number one concern by far. Democrats have seemed flummoxed that working-class voters have not been suitably grateful for all the great programs they passed and recently robust economic performance, featuring very low unemployment, solid job creation, good economic growth, and cooling inflation. Some of the polling data in fact are pretty dire. In the latest ABC News poll only 13 percent say they are better off financially since Biden took office, compared to 43 percent who say they are worse off. And in the latest CBS News poll half of voters believe that if Biden wins in November, his policies in a second term would make them financially worse off, with just a fifth saying those policies would make them better off. In contrast, half of voters think Trump’s policies, if he wins, would make them financially better off, compared to 30 percent who think his policies would make them worse off.

Findings like these tend to make Democratic-oriented commentators furious. What’s wrong with these people, especially the working-class voters among whom these sentiments are particularly strong? They latch on to theories like it’s some sort of weird vibes thing, or partisanship or (that old reliable) the Satanic influence of Fox News and other sources of “misinformation”. But really this shouldn’t be so hard to understand. As economics commentator Roger Lowenstein notes:

The typical household’s living standard improved during the three Trump years before the pandemic. Under President Biden, Americans have (at best) struggled to keep even with inflation….[I]t is one thing to loathe Mr. Trump and hope for his defeat. It is another to wish away his successes or, as has become common, to ascribe his popularity to voter prejudices or weaknesses of character. The leitmotif in such arguments is that blue voters are rational political actors voting on merit while Trump is appealing primarily, if not exclusively, to irrational semi-citizens devoid of even self-interested calculation.

That might be. But it can’t be ignored that they might also have experienced the pointed rise, after adjusting for inflation, in the median household income—how the typical family lives—before the pandemic: 10.5 percent from 2016 to 2019….[Under Biden], inflation has snatched away the gains from even a very strong labor market. Over his first two years, as price hikes outran wages, real median household income fell 2.7 percent. The census has yet to report median income for 2023, but given that real wages were up about 1 percent through November, the cumulative change in household median income, adjusted for inflation, over Mr. Biden’s first three years is likely to be in the range of mildly negative to very mildly positive. In other words, in the all-important category of improving living standards, the country did not make progress.

In light of all this, perhaps Democrats should not be so indignant that working-class voters do not feel that the Biden economy has been great! And not so surprised that their “Bidenomics” pitch came a cropper with these voters.

Democrats hold out hope that the recent upturn in consumer confidence heralds a surge of economic good will toward Biden and his administration. Maybe but so far—apparently the upturn includes December and several weeks in January—we do not see any real improvement in Biden’s approval ratings or performance vis a vis Trump.

Another popular Democratic talking point is that the three big bills advancing their economic policy priorities—the Infrastructure and Jobs Act, the CHIPS and Science Act and, especially, the cleverly-named (perhaps too cleverly-named) Inflation Reduction Act—are producing good blue-collar jobs, especially in manufacturing. Perhaps that will eventually be the case, but so far the most noticeable effect has been a massive increase in construction spending in manufacturing. As Noah Smith points out, manufacturing output hasn’t gone anywhere and the manufacturing sector may now even be in a slump. It’s also true that manufacturing employment has not improved much and in fact has been flatover the last year.

As Smith notes there are many obstacles in the way of successful industrial policy, which cannot and should not be reduced to spending a lot of money (“checkism”). Democrats will need considerable time to get it right and “bold, persistent experimentation” a la FDR. Not to mention goring a few Democratic regulatory and permitting oxen.

In the meantime, they will need to get re-elected and for that they need more working-class voters. That means that, rather than resting on their economic laurels, Democrats need to convince these voters they have done and are doing things that speak directly to their economic concerns.

As Matt Yglesias and the Blueprint public opinion research group have pointed out, there is a strange disconnect between the Biden economic policies voters like the most and voter awareness—that is, voters tend to be least aware of Biden policies they support the most. Yglesias brings up the example of Medicare and prescription drugs; the administration has “[c]apped the price of insulin at $35/month, [n]egotiated down the price of 10 major prescription drugs, [c]apped annual out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs [and] implemented a tax to discourage companies from raising prescription drug prices.” These are wildly popular with voters but few voters are aware of them. It seems likely if all this had been done on Trump’s watch, those 10 prescription drugs would have become the most famous drugs in America. There’s a lesson there.

The same dynamic can be seen around climate issues. In another essay, Yglesias notes:

Under Biden, US emissions have fallen to the lowest level in over 30 years, even as oil and gas production have soared to all-time record levels…Biden and the Democrats should triangulate ruthlessly on energy, brag about their successful all-of-the-above policy, basically never mention climate change, and not enact any new climate-focused policies whatsoever. In exchange, climate change groups should back him extremely aggressively, offering literally zero complaints or criticisms about anything he says or does and not asking for any new initiatives on any front. The climate advocates had the privilege of being the Democratic Party’s favored children during 2021-2022, even though the voters didn’t like that idea, and now it’s time for climate advocates to repay the favor by doing everything possible to beat Trump—which means giving Democrats maximum tactical and strategic flexibility to cater to the public.

But that doesn’t seem to be where the Biden administration is. As best I can tell, they still feel that they need to court climate groups and avoid taking flak from the left.

And it’s certainly not where climate groups are—they’re asking Biden to block new natural gas exports, which would be bad for economic growth and bad for Biden’s national security policies, in exchange for tiny and possibly non-existent climate benefits. I think the White House should tell them all to fuck off.

And while they’re at it they should say something similar to any and all activist groups trying to block moves to tighten border security. These groups do not speak for most voters, especially working-class voters. In general, Biden and his team should remember these core truths:

  • It is not the working class that sees the police as an unnecessary evil and opposes rigorous enforcement of the law for public safety and public order.
  • It is not the working class that believes public consumption of hard drugs should be tolerated, with intervention limited to reviving addicts when they overdose.
  • It is not the working class that believes many crimes like shoplifting should be decriminalized because punishing the perpetrators would have “disparate impact”.
  • It is not the working class that believes you should never refer to illegal immigrants as “illegal” and that border security is somehow a racist idea.
  • It is not the working class that believes an overwhelming surge of migrants at the southern border should be accommodated with asylum claims, parole arrangements, and release into urban areas around the country.
  • It is not the working class that believes competitive admissions and job placements should be allocated on the basis of race (“equity”) not merit.
  • It is not the working class that views objective tests as fundamentally flawed if they show racial disparities in achievement.
  • It is not the working class that believes America is a structurally racist, white supremacist society.
  • It is not the working class that sees patriotism as a dirty word and the history of the United States as a bleak landscape of racism and oppression.
  • It is not the working class that thinks sex is “assigned at birth” and can be changed by self-conception, rather than being an objective, biological reality.
  • It is not the working class that thinks it’s a great idea to police the language people use for hidden “microaggressions” and bias against the “marginalized”.
  • And it is definitely not the working class that believes in “decolonize everything” and manages to see murderous thugs like Hamas as righteous liberators of a subaltern people.

These truths could give Democrats the courage to do what needs to be done and talk to the voters they really need to talk to. Getting out of their Brahmin left comfort zone is essential both for beating Trump and for any hopes they might harbor about becoming a dominant majority party in the future.


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