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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Dems Can Win Working-Class Voters

Some excerpts from “Democrats Aren’t Campaigning to Win the Working Class” by Jared Abbott and Fred Deveaux at Jacobin:

Democrats are losing the working class — and if the trend continues, it’ll reshape American politics for generations. Simply, there’s no sustainable path to victory in national elections without these voters, a more affluent Democratic base means less electoral support for progressive economic policies, and losing the working class will accelerate the rise of far-right populism.

While there is growing debate about whether and how Democrats can win back the working class, recent analyses we have conducted at the Center for Working-Class Politics suggest that their best bet is to run economic populists from working-class backgrounds. Take the case of Marie Gluesenkamp Perez. The freshman Democratic representative prevailed in 2022 in southwest Washington’s largely working-class third district, despite the fact that she was given just a 2% likelihood-of-victory rating by 538.

Like any campaign, this contest was determined by many factors, but the following language from Gluesenkamp Perez’s campaign materials is telling:

Marie is exactly the kind of working class Washingtonian that has been left behind in this economy. . . . In Congress, Marie will be a voice for working Washingtonians, support small businesses and worker’s rights, lower the costs of healthcare, childcare and prescription drugs . . . and expand apprenticeship and skills training programs. . . . I’m running to take on politicians who are bought and paid for by large corporations who refuse to pay their fair share while working families who follow the rules fall further behind.

Gluesenkamp Perez portrays herself as an economic populist. She champions the working-class and points the finger at economic elites; focuses on economic policies that improve the well-being of everyday, working Americans; and underscores that her own class background helps her to understand the issues that are important to other working-class voters.

Gluesenkamp Perez’s messaging approach is consistent with the findings of our research on working-class voters’ preferences: they prefer candidates from working-class backgrounds to elite candidates, are attracted to candidates who explicitly call out elites and raise up the working class, and support candidates who focus on progressive, bread-and-butter economic issues.

Though Democrats were given an electoral reprieve in 2022 due to the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and a particularly lackluster set of Republican candidates, the Democratic Party saw further erosion of support among working-class voters — including working-class Latinos and African Americans. This made us wonder just how common it is for Democrats to run the type of economic populist campaigns needed to appeal effectively to working-class voters.

To answer this question, we collected information on all 966 Democratic candidates who ran for Congress in 2022. With the help of a research team, we scraped information from their campaign websites to see how many use economic populist rhetoric, advocate progressive economic policies, and come from working-class backgrounds.

Our main finding is that Democrats are not running the types of economic populist candidates they need to win back workers. Only a small fraction call out economic elites in their campaigns. While many candidates talk about economic issues in general, comparatively few mention bold, popular progressive economic policies that would have an impact on working people’s lives — from large-scale programs to create high-quality jobs to policies to strengthen unions or raise the minimum wage. And lastly, almost no candidates are working-class themselves. This gap between politicians and the people they represent is stark: while nearly 50% of Americans have a working-class occupation, only 2% to 6% of Democratic candidates running for Congress do.

Democrats’ rejection of economic populism has serious consequences. It shows that the party is still not taking seriously the exodus of working-class voters. And this is despite the evidence we find that populists are actually more likely to win precisely in districts that Democrats need the most: heavily working-class districts. This relationship persists when we control for a wide range of important factors that determine electoral outcomes, such as district partisanship, incumbency, and candidate demographic characteristics.

The key to winning the working class begins with putting forward economic policies that signal commitment to improving the economic well-being of working Americans. To do this, candidates need to push for ambitious policies that will create more and better jobs for those struggling to make ends meet, strengthen protections for workers who want to unionize to improve their wages and working conditions, and revitalize American manufacturing and communities hard-hit by decades of mass corporate layoffs. These policies are popular among working-class voters across the political spectrum.

Abbott and Deveaux go on to argue that “While Joe Biden’s agenda has been more economically progressive than that of any previous Democratic administration in decades, it has not been nearly enough to show increasingly frustrated working-class Americans that Democrats are the party of working people.” Further,

While the fate of progressive economic policies is often outside Democrats’ control, the party’s messaging around these issues is not. So did Democratic candidates in 2022 run on progressive economic policies? The vast majority did not. Only 31% of Democratic congressional candidates mentioned the need for high-paying, quality jobs, just over 23% mentioned Medicare for All, and 18% talked about paid family or medical leave. Even more surprisingly, virtually none mentioned a $15 minimum wage (5%) or a federal jobs guarantee (4%).

When we restrict our attention to general elections and only those candidates running in competitive districts (Cook PVI plus or minus five), we find a slightly more encouraging picture: a much larger share mention high-paying jobs (45%), indicating that when they have to be strategic to win working-class votes, Democrats do recognize the value of progressive economic policies. That said, almost none of these Democrats mentioned Medicare for All (<3%), despite its broad popularity….Vague generic language around jobs and infrastructure is simply not enough to send a strong signal to voters that the Democrats’ economic priorities have really changed.

The authors see Democrats as a whole giving economic elites an easy ride:

Our results show that a much smaller share of candidates use anti–economic elite rhetoric. Even the most generic terms, such as “special interest,” and references to money in politics and large corporations are employed by roughly 15% of candidates. Under 10% of candidates call out Wall Street, billionaires, millionaires, CEOs, etc.

Candidates who make it to competitive general elections are far more likely to use such anti-elite rhetoric (nearly twice as likely), but even here only 30% to 35% of candidates invoke the negative influence of special interests and corporate donors….”

Abbot and Deveaux also see a telling disconnect between messenger and message among Democratic candidates.

Our previous work indicated that working-class voters prefer candidates who come from working-class backgrounds. Talk is cheap, and with the growing distrust of elites and the two major parties, maybe even anti-elite rhetoric isn’t enough to persuade voters that candidates actually understand or care about the problems they face. The only types of candidates that working-class voters consistently see as understanding their interests are those with working-class backgrounds.

Yet despite making up over 60% of the population, working-class Americans are almost nowhere to be found among the 2022 Democratic candidates. Just 2.3% of the 925 candidates for which we could find occupational backgrounds were working-class (understood as having held exclusively working-class jobs before entering politics). If we expand our definition of working class to include service-sector professionals such as teachers and nurses, this number increases slightly to 5.9%. And if we further expand it to include candidates who ever had a working-class job in their adult lives, the share is roughly 20%. Democratic candidates are hardly representative of the American public.

They identify major obstacles to working-class candidates running for office, including:

So why then are there so few working-class candidates? There are many possible reasons, including more limited access to rich donor networks, less capacity to take time off to run for office, limited prior experience holding office, and difficulty raising money. On the latter score, our analysis of 2022 candidates finds that working-class candidates are systematically trounced in the primaries, where they just don’t raise the same amount of money as other candidates do. When they make it to the general elections, however, we find that working-class candidates do just as well as other candidates, indicating that it is not some intrinsic quality of these candidates that is holding them back.

The authors  urge Democrats to put “egalitarian economics, along with anti–economic elite and pro-worker language, at the heart of their campaign messaging — and finding more working-class candidates who can deliver that messaging convincingly.”

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