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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: The Working Class-Sized Hole in Democratic Support Widens

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:

Toward the beginning of this year, I remarked in a post on “The Coming Working-Class Election”:

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.

So, how’s that going now that we’re almost midway through the election year? From the standpoint of the Democrats, not good, not good at all. The just-released New York Times/Philadelphia Inquirer/Siena College poll provides an opportunity to check in on the working class vote in considerable detail. The Times poll provides data across the six key Presidential battleground states—Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—as well as data for each of these individual states. Here is what I found:

1. Across the battleground, Biden is losing to Trump among working-class voters by 16 points. That compares to Biden’s national working-class deficit of just 4 points in 2020. It’s also slightly worse than Biden’s performance in last October’s Times poll which covered the same states, when he was behind among these voters by 15 points.

2. The October-to-May deterioration among working-class voters is actually a bit worse among likely voters. Biden was behind Trump by 14 points among these voters last October; the gap today is now 18 points. However, in what follows I will confine my analysis to registered voters, since the Times does not provide demographic breakdowns for likely voters within states.

3. The October-to-May deterioration is also worse among nonwhite working-class voters. Biden was ahead among these voters in the battleground states by 16 points last October (note that this compares to the 48 point advantage Biden had nationally in 2020). But his advantage among nonwhite working class voters has fallen to single digits—9 points—in the new data.

4. In Arizona, Biden trails Trump by 9 points among working-class voters. In 2020, when Biden barely won the state by three-tenths of a percentage point, his deficit among these voters was only 4 points.

5. In Georgia, Biden is losing to Trump by a daunting 21 points among working-class voters. That compares to Biden’s modest 6 point gap in 2020 (here I use States of Change data, since Catalist data are not available for the state). Biden won Georgia in 2020 by a slender two-tenths of percentage point.

6. In Michigan, Biden’s working-class deficit against Trump is 24 points. In 2020, that deficit was just 6 points.

7. In Nevada, Biden trails Trump by 21 points among working-class voters. But in 2020, Biden and Trump were tied among these voters! That’s quite a drop. As noted in a followup Times article on their Nevada survey, Nevada is a state where Biden’s stewardship of the economy is viewed especially negatively. Among working class Nevada voters, Trump is deemed better than Biden for handling the economy by 40 points (66 to 26 percent). Interestingly, white and nonwhite working-class voters are basically united in their view of Trump vs. Biden on the economy: white working-class voters prefer Trump by 67-24, while nonwhite working class voters prefer Trump by 63-29.

8. In Pennsylvania, it’s Trump over Biden by 19 points among working-class voters. That’s a sharp drop from Biden’s 9 point deficit among these voters in 2020 (States of Change data). This is a state that Biden won by only a single point last election.

9. In Wisconsin, Biden is behind Trump by 6 points among working-class voters. That doesn’t sound so great but is actually 6 points better than Biden did in 2020, when he lost these voters by 12 points. This is the only state of the six surveyed by the Times where Biden is running better among these voters today than in 2020. And, not coincidentally, it is the only state of the six where Biden is currently leading Trump among registered voters.

This is all pretty baleful for the Democrats. As Timothy Noah has remarked:

For the past 100 years, no Democrat—with one exception—has ever entered the White House without winning a majority of the working-class vote, defined conventionally as those voters who possess a high school degree but no college degree. The exception was Joe Biden in 2020, under highly unusual circumstances (a badly-mismanaged Covid pandemic, an economy going haywire). It’s unlikely in the extreme that Biden can manage that trick a second time. He must win the working-class vote in 2024.

As the Times data (and much other data) show, that objective seems quite far away for Biden at this point. And that’s a problem: you can’t hit the target unless you’re aiming at it. That’s why I think that the Biden campaign’s notorious “polling denialism” might well be viewed as “working class denialism.” The Biden campaign would rather think about this election as “the democracy election” and/or “the abortion rights election”; advocates tell the campaign it should be “the climate election” or “the student loans election” or “the Palestinian rights election” or the “racial justice election.” But in the end, the outcome will be determined by how the working class assesses the choice between Trump and Biden and casts their vote. That fact should not be denied—and the fact should be faced that none of the above issues provides the key for turning the election in Democrats’ favor.

What would? The answer may be quite mundane if challenging to implement, not least because it goes against the grain of the Democrats’ shadow party and their amen corner in the media and academia. A recent memo from the Blueprint strategy notes:

We tested messages that Biden could use to expose Trump’s vulnerabilities, and the ones that voters found most compelling focused on economic fairness and how that should be reflected in public policy—not on Biden and Trump’s respective characters, biographies, and backgrounds….

Blueprint’s latest survey, conducted in partnership with The Liberal Patriot, showed that many of the policies that are most popular with voters can be used to make the case that Biden is the candidate for average Americans while Trump is the candidate who advocates for the interests of the very rich. Among the 40 policies we tested, the most popular ones are those that crack down on corporations, lower the prices of health care and other things, and protect Medicare and Social Security.

Just as the most effective tax and economic policy messages in the poll centered on those topics, none of these stances are particularly sexy or novel; instead, they are positions that are easy to imagine any Democrat supporting over the last decade. Trump has many qualities and vulnerabilities that make him distinct from run-of-the-mill Republicans of the past and present, which are tempting to focus on in paid and earned media. But our polling shows that ahead of November, Biden would be wise to highlight boring-but-popular policy distinctions that he supports in order to drive home the overall contrast between himself and Trump on tax policy and economic fairness.

Would this work? There is no guarantee; Democratic vulnerabilities on issues like immigration, crime, and social disorder would remain. But it does seem better suited to the realities of the coming working-class election than the Biden campaign’s current approach. That approach may resonate better with the Democrats’ shadow party and activist supporters, but not where it counts the most: with the working class.

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