Biden and many of his advisers have long argued the best way for Democrats to regain ground with blue-collar voters — not only the White ones, who have drifted toward the GOP since the 1960s, but also increasingly Hispanic and even some Black ones — is to show that government can deliver them material benefits.
“This polling and this collaboration is a wake-up call that says these people are desperate to have someone battle for them,” says Greenberg, who became renowned in the mid-1980s for documenting the alienation from the Democratic Party of White blue-collar “Reagan Democrats” in Macomb County, outside Detroit. “They are only there [electorally] if you want to change the power balance … if you want to make real big economic change, and you really understand their lives. And it’s been a long time since they have seen that from Democrats.”
To many analysts, those outcomes underscore how many cultural barriers still limit Democrats among White blue-collar voters, even if they can deliver more kitchen-table assistance.
Virtually no analyst in either party believes that Democrats, whatever strategy they follow, can win a majority of working-class White voters. (No Democratic presidential candidate has done so since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, polls show). But the difference between a normally disappointing midterm for the party holding the White House and a catastrophic result that could lock Democrats out of congressional power for years may come down to whether they can regain any ground with working-class voters of all races from the direct economic benefits that the infrastructure plan will deliver — and that the reconciliation plan could deliver if Democrats overcome the intractable internal disagreements that have stalled its approval for months.
Tracking Democratic erosion
White voters without four-year college degrees functioned as the brawny backbone of the Democrats’ “New Deal” electoral coalition from the 1930s through the 1960s. The party’s erosion with those voters after that, largely around issues of racial equity and cultural change, generated enormous alarm and internal debate during the 1970s and especially 1980s: The centrist “New Democrat” movement led by Bill Clinton was sparked mostly by the desire to win back more blue-collar and rural Whites.
But since 2012, Democrats’ position with these working-class White voters has slipped further, in a manner that has grown more difficult to overcome with improved performance and turnout among other groups, especially in less diverse industrial battlegrounds. The Democrats’ national vote share among them fell to a little over one-third in President Barack Obama’s 2012 election before cratering to just below 30%, according to multiple data sources, in Donald Trump’s 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton; as important, Trump erased enough of the Democratic blue-collar overperformance in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to capture all three states and squeak out his Electoral College win while losing the national popular vote.
In part, Youngkin ran so well with non-college-educated Whites in Virginia because half of them identified as evangelical Christians, a devoutly Republican constituency: Youngkin carried more than 9 in 10 of those White evangelicals without college degrees, the CNN polling unit found in previously unreported results. That’s a common deficit for Democrats across the South, where evangelicals compose a relatively larger share of the working-class White population and often vote for Republicans in such overwhelming proportions.
More ominous for Democrats was the Virginia outcome among the half of non-college White voters there who are not evangelicals — a group that is more populous in the key Rust Belt battlegrounds. In 2018, the exit polls found that Democrats carried a majority of those voters in House races nationwide; in 2020, the exit polls and other post-election analyses found that Biden won 42% to 45% of them. But Youngkin last week carried fully 65% of them, holding McAuliffe to just 35%, a result that presages ominous losses for Democrats across the Midwest if it holds through the midterm elections.
‘This bill is for you’
The party’s best chance to reverse those perceptions, the authors argue, is to deliver policies that address “people’s acute economic needs (Medicare expansion & lower health insurance premiums and the expanded child tax credit delivered monthly)” and, just as important, to send a signal of their allegiance by funding those initiatives through higher taxes on big corporations and the wealthy. In testing that message, Greenberg said in an interview, “I was stunned by how much of an audience [Democrats] got.” He added: “For decades, [working class voters] have not heard a Democratic Party that is upset with the status quo, really wakes up every day wanting big economic change, wanting changes in economic power, wanting workers to have more of a say and higher incomes.”
Terrance Woodbury, CEO and founding partner at HIT Strategies, says legislative progress on the party’s economic agenda is critical not only to holding working-class White voters but also to motivating the intermittent African American voters who surged to the polls against Trump in 2018 and 2020. Biden’s favorability, he says, has fallen more among those voters than more reliable (and usually older) Black voters. Those surge voters, Woodbury says, have “an acute awareness that they were responsible for or contributed to the Democratic power in Washington, and they just aren’t seeing any results yet.”
These consultants’ advice to stress kitchen-table economic assistance to working-class families of all races fits squarely with the plans of White House and Democratic congressional leaders, who see touting the infrastructure plan and broader reconciliation bill (if they can finally pass it) as their best chance to avoid severe midterm losses next year.
For working-class White voters, “a lot of these issues are tied in with this sense of racial and cultural grievance,” says Abramowitz. “There’s a sense they don’t like the way the country is changing, they think Democrats and liberals are catering to non-Whites and immigrants and they are not looking out for their interests. Even when they are offering them policies that would benefit them, you can’t seem to penetrate that.”
A reckoning for Democrats
As Greenberg acknowledges, whatever approach Democrats follow, or whatever agenda they pass, the party will still face strong headwinds among working-class voters of all races next year unless they also see improvement in the immediate conditions concerning them, from inflation and Covid to crime. “A lot depends on what is really happening a year from now,” he says.
The nearly unbroken pattern since the Civil War of midterm House losses for the president’s party also suggests that even a brighter national mood might not prevent Democrats from surrendering at least that chamber. The bigger question for Democrats may be whether the kitchen-table agenda embodied in the infrastructure and reconciliation plans will help Biden, or another nominee, win in 2024 by holding enough working-class Whites and Hispanics otherwise drawn to conservative Republican cultural messages.
Lynn Vavreck, a UCLA political scientist and co-author of the book “Identity Crisis,” about the 2016 election, says that whatever Democrats do, attitudes toward cultural and racial change are likely to overshadow economics as the principal driver of most people’s political loyalties. “That’s where we are now,” she says. “We are not going back to fighting over the New Deal. We are going to fight over this for the foreseeable future.”
But, she notes, because the country is so closely divided, particularly in the states at the tipping point of the Electoral College and Senate control, even if Democrats can move only a small number of working-class voters by delivering more material benefits to them, that shift could have a huge impact.
“Can you make a big enough dent to win the 2024 presidential election?” she asked, before answering her own question: “Yeah, because you don’t need to [change] that many votes.”