Even before last November’s election, commentators and analysts were pointing to the erosion of Democrats’ working-class support. Then Democrats lost Virginia’s gubernatorial race, where Republican Glenn Youngkin won three-quarters of white voters without a four-year degree and two-thirds of those in rural and small-town Virginia. His campaign generated such high voter turnout in Trump country that it increased the white vote share from two-thirds in 2018 and 2020 to three-quarters. If Republicans continue winning working-class votes at the rate they did in Virginia, Democrats have little chance.
After studying working-class voters for nearly four decades, I believe the trajectory can be shifted or reversed. But there is no room for error. There is no room for fools. There is no time for strategists who look down on or rule out voters who fail a purist civics test. There is also no room for sensibilities that keep us from clearly understanding our options.
Working with a multiracial and multigenerational team of pollsters—Democracy Corps, Equis Research, and HIT Strategies, made possible by the support of the American Federation of Teachers and Center for Voter Information—I see the same pattern today among racially diverse workers without a four-year degree that I saw among white workers in Macomb County three decades ago. The voters who have defected to Republicans are still open to voting for Democrats. They resent big corporations writing the rules at work and in politics. But when they hear Democrats are offering bold economic and political changes, they are surprised.
During the 1990s, leading Democrats recognized they had a working-class problem, and although many people may no longer remember it, both Bill Clinton and Al Gore had working class–oriented campaigns. In 1992, Clinton sought to win the support of both white and Black working families, pointing to their shared economic struggles and sense of grievance that hardworking people like themselves were not getting heard by government. He told them that “we need fundamental change, not more of the same,” and promised to raise taxes on CEOs while reassuring working-class voters of all races on crime and welfare. In his 2000 campaign, Gore was emphatic about checking the power of Big Tobacco and the pharmaceutical and health insurance companies. After the Democratic convention, he insisted his public events be plastered with signs saying, “THE PEOPLE, NOT THE POWERFUL!”
Frankly, I was skeptical. I said, “Could this be more inauthentic?” But I polled it, and Gore was right to hammer that theme—and he did win the popular vote (including Macomb County) and probably would have been president, but for the intervention of the Supreme Court in stopping the Florida recount. [Continue reading…]