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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Meyerson: Is Reversing Biden’s Working-Class Slump Even Possible?

From “Is Reversing Biden’s Working-Class Slump Even Possible? A new survey of key swing states shows how it could be done, but—granting its necessity—it sure sounds difficult” by Harold Meyerson at The American Prospect:

A New York Times/Siena national poll from last month shows Biden’s level of support among non-college voters of all races is down to 39 percent, which is nine percentage points beneath his level of support from those voters in the 2020 election. If he can’t make up that gap or get close to it between now and November, his goose, not to mention civilization’s, is cooked.

One reason why that decline looms so large is that working-class voters constitute a disproportionately large share of the electorate in three must-win swing states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. This week, two groups that have long been surveying the Midwest working class—In Union, and the Factory Towns Project of American Family Voices—are releasing a study of those voters, focusing on the issues that can move them back into the Democrats’ column, and even more on the means by which Democrats can and must make their case.

Donald Trump carried Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin over Hillary Clinton in 2016, but lost those states to Biden in 2020. By itself, the shift in union household voting between 2016 and 2020 more than accounted for Biden’s narrow margins of victory in those three states. As the study documents, the swing among working-class voters in Michigan came to approximately 104,000; in Pennsylvania, 137,000; and in Wisconsin, 28,000. Recent polling in those states, however, shows that Biden’s levels of support among working-class voters have subsided to Clinton’s insufficient levels of 2016.

The polls undertaken by the study’s two sponsors make clear that the issues that could bring Biden’s totals up among these voters, not surprisingly, involve progressive populism. Both polling and focus groups made clear that these voters “are very inclined to believe Democrats who tell a story about price gouging and outrageous corporate profits. They are angry that wealthy corporate CEOs and billionaires aren’t paying what they should in taxes and that the top 1 percent (yes, they still use that phrase) are gaming the system.”

The other issue to which these voters responded most positively is the hardy perennial of retirement security and access to affordable health care. They give greater credence to the Democratic record on Social Security and Medicare, and the party’s pledges to defend them, than they do to the Republican position. The study also shows that Democratic support for abortion rights, affordable child care, and even forgiving student loans is widely popular among these working-class voters, and that Democrats should not skimp on defending those positions. But the primary message must center on attacking corporate greed and defending the right to a secure retirement.

Meyerson explains further, “One of the key strategic elements to moving these voters,” the study claims, “is tapping into trusted sources to communicate with them. Simply airing a bunch of TV ads and knocking on doors late in the campaign is not going to break through with these voters—they are too convinced that most people like them are voting Republican and too cynical about politics as it is commonly practiced to be moved much by traditional ads and campaign tactics right before Election Day.” Also,

This assessment echoes that in perhaps the best book that’s come out on the political shift in much of the working class: Lainey Newman and Theda Skocpol’s Rust Belt Union Blues, which was published last year. The book, which I reviewed for the Prospect in January, takes a granular look at the onetime mine and mill towns of Western Pennsylvania. In 1960, those towns (also including the cities of Pittsburgh and Erie) were home to 143 locals of the United Steelworkers; today, only 16 of those locals still exist. In 1960, those locals were not just venues for union meetings. They were also union social halls, where members and their families came to unwind after work, and hold weddings and other family celebrations. The unions were a social center of those towns’ collective life (something the movie The Deer Hunter depicted quite well), creating peer groups and communities enmeshed in the union’s values and, more often than not, its politics.

Today, not only are those union locals long gone, but the only real remaining social centers in most of those towns are gun clubs, most of them affiliated with the National Rifle Association as a way to get discounted guns for their members. Today, the peer groups and communities for most working-class residents of the once-industrial Midwest have become Republican, a transition that the In Union/Factory Towns survey completely corroborates.

So who are “the trusted sources,” as the survey puts it, the neighbors and friends who still retain credibility, who can convey the Democrats’ populist messaging to working-class voters? The study calls on unions to activate their members to be the precinct walkers who can actually talk to working-class voters, but acknowledges that due to unions’ declining numbers, they must be joined by Democratic and other movement activists. In Union has identified 3.3 million voters in those three swing states who have pro-union attitudes; 14 percent of them say they’re undecided in the upcoming presidential and senatorial elections.

But building a community where progressive populist politics is the norm rather than the exception is the work of years, and the study acknowledges that Democrats are flat out of years to do that work. “We aren’t going to transform the landscape and reverse all the problematic trends in six months in terms of working-class voters,” it says, adding, “right now this is a game of inches. But given how close battleground elections are going to be, inches are the difference between winning and losing.”

It was not in the purview of this study to review how the Democrats got themselves into this fix with the American working class. But it’s clear that the Democrats’ decades of indifference to unions’ decline was a primary reason, and in many parts of the country, the disappearance of unions was perhaps the primary reason. Unions have rebounded in the popularity polls and have recently won some important organizing victories (though not at the Mercedes plant in Alabama), but that doesn’t mean they have enough activists in working-class communities to prod their politically undecided neighbors to cast their votes for Joe Biden this fall.

Meyerson concludes, “For that reason, the study chiefly reads as a plea to the rest of us: Do what you can to help our guys out!”

One comment on “Meyerson: Is Reversing Biden’s Working-Class Slump Even Possible?

  1. Martin Lawford on

    If Meyerson is correct that “But building a community where progressive populist politics is the norm rather than the exception is the work of years…”, we had better get started immediately. Otherwise, years from now, we’ll be saying the same thing.


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