Can the Democrats Win Back White Working-Class Voters?

Can the Democrats Win Back White Working-Class Voters?

Can the Democrats Win Back White Working-Class Voters?

Maybe—but first we need to understand why they left the party.


It’s the year of the white working-class voter. The despair and dispossession of white Americans without a four-year college degree (the most common definition of “working class”) is said to have propelled the candidacy of Donald Trump, as well as the insurgency of Senator Bernie Sanders. Two surprisingly popular new books, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, have shed light on white working-class suffering, particularly joblessness, drug addiction, and rising mortality rates—issues that have come up on the campaign trail as both parties vie for the group’s vote, which was nearly 50 percent of the total electorate in 2012.

Some liberal pundits, however, believe that Democratic efforts to reach these voters have been too little, too late. Thomas Frank, who has made a career out of disdaining the political class’s turn toward “elites,” says Trump’s success is proof that Democratic “neoliberalism has well and truly failed” the white working class. In The New York Times, Thomas Edsall recently argued that Trump has been able to lure struggling whites with promises of economic salvation (plus a healthy dose of bigotry) because Democrats have become “increasingly dependent on a white upper middle class that has isolated itself from the rest of American society.” Now, white working-class voters in swing states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio are considered Trump’s best shot at pulling off an upset, especially if Hillary Clinton ignores them in favor of cementing the “Obama coalition” of people of color, the LGBTQ community, and college-educated whites.

But is any of this tale true? Did the white working class flee the Democrats because the party abandoned them economically? Is Clinton, as the establishment favorite, uniquely unqualified to lure them back? Is their economic suffering really driving the Trump campaign? And can it be enough to carry the racist bully to the White House?

The answer to all of these questions, I’d argue, is no. There are, of course, political and moral reasons to care about the pessimism and dislocation of the white working class. It’s been the proverbial canary in the coal mine, a formerly thriving group once buoyed by government investment and labor rights whose standard of living has fallen since Republicans (with the aid of some Democrats) turned their backs on the post–World War II consensus. Some of the economic trends that have hurt this group, like sluggish wage growth, are holding back African Americans and Latinos as well.

But the conviction that’s common on both right and left—that the Democrats deserted the white working class by chasing “identity politics” and Wall Street donors and now show little interest in winning it back—is undone by the evidence. To bring these voters back, we have to understand what made them turn away in the first place.

* * *

Frank may be the single most influential purveyor of the notion that Democrats betrayed their own base. Throughout this election, in The Guardian as well as in his new book Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, Frank has repeatedly argued that Democrats alienated their former base through their support for neoliberalism, NAFTA, and Wall Street deregulation. The party has always assumed these voters had “nowhere else to go,” Frank writes; but now, “those people may have finally found somewhere else to go” in Donald Trump.

In fact, however, “those people” found “somewhere else to go” 50 years ago, at least at the presidential level. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition relied on a huge mandate from white workers without a college degree, and even through the 1960 and ’64 elections, Democrats won an average 55 percent of that vote, according to political scientists Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz. But in the next two presidential elections, they won only some 35 percent—a stunning drop in just a few years, thanks in part to the racialized “law and order” strategy of Richard Nixon.

In 1976, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter won back many of these voters, but Ronald Reagan grew the GOP’s margins in 1980 and ’84 with tough-on-crime, tough-on-the–Soviet Union rhetoric, garnering 61 percent of their vote. While Frank blames Bill Clinton for much of the party’s troubles with the white working class, Clinton in fact did better with this group than his predecessors, winning 41 percent in 1992 and ’96, giving him a plurality in those three-way races. Since then, the Democrats’ share of the white working-class vote has slipped again: Barack Obama dropped to 36 percent of that vote in 2012, 25 points behind Republican Mitt Romney.

But a deeper dive into Obama’s numbers shows huge regional differences. In 2012, Obama convincingly won the white working-class vote in New England, essentially tied with Romney in the Midwest, and ran competitively in the coastal West and Mid-Atlantic states, according to the polling group Democracy Corps. Only in the Deep South (where he won 25 percent) and the Mountain West (where he won a third) did Obama crater.

These variations, as well as the relative success of Clinton and Carter (both Southerners), suggest that identity politics powerfully shapes white working-class loyalties. It’s certainly true that many Democrats cravenly courted Wall Street and big business in the 1980s and beyond. It’s also true that Clinton’s neoliberal policies adversely impacted the white working class. But these voters had defected from the party much earlier and for different reasons. The truth is, Republicans have relied on a nationwide “Southern strategy” to reach the white working class, demonizing Democrats as the party that coddles minorities, taking jobs and tax dollars from whites and giving them to people of color. Donald Trump didn’t invent this nativist, racist, paranoid appeal; he just dialed it to 11.

* * *

So what about the premise that Hillary Clinton is uniquely unqualified to win the white working-class vote back? Karen Nussbaum, a labor leader who’s done as much to bring non-college-educated white voters to the Democrats as anyone else, rejects this notion. Nussbaum’s Working America, a project of the AFL-CIO that tries to organize nonunion workers, began its outreach efforts to potential Trump voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania late last year. Clinton won white non-college voters in both of those states, though Sanders carried them in nearby Wisconsin and Michigan. “With her policies, Clinton can absolutely be competitive there,” Nussbaum states confidently.

For five weeks starting in December, Working America ran what it called “front-porch focus groups.” Canvassers had conversations with over a thousand likely voters with household incomes of $75,000 or less in white neighborhoods near Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Working America found some troubling signs: 25 percent of the Democrats it contacted said they would be voting for Trump. Pennsylvania and Ohio also have key Senate races, with Democratic challenger Katie McGinty leading Senator Pat Toomey, and former governor Ted Strickland trailing GOP Senator Rob Portman.

But the project learned that although these voters’ No. 1 issue was the economy, Trump’s economic solutions (such as they are) weren’t driving his popularity. Despite Frank’s insistence that Trump’s opposition to trade deals is the core of his appeal, only 8 percent of those who favored Trump said it was because of his “policies.” Nearly half said they liked him because he “speaks his mind,” Nussbaum noted. “They have a strong feeling that government isn’t working for them, and they want political leadership that helps them. If we move them to clarify who’s really to blame and who really will help, we can help make sense of a frightening situation.”

One summer evening, I went to Brooklyn, Ohio (just outside of Cleveland), with veteran organizer Soren Norris to get a glimpse of Working America’s efforts. Of the 10 or so people we talked to, only two were committed Trump supporters: a tight-lipped middle-aged man working on his Harley who told us that Trump shares his “values,” and a young woman who suggested that Obama won the presidency because he’s black and said she won’t vote for Clinton because “women are made to run on emotion.” For the record, neither mentioned trade deals.

The rest of our visits were more encouraging. An 81-year-old retiree was hesitant to open the door, but when we asked about Trump she quickly answered, “He’s a jerk. He’ll probably get us into a war.” She said that the rest of her family was voting for Trump, but that she’d probably vote for Clinton. Two sixtysomething retired men on the same block volunteered that they’re for Clinton, though one of them, Ron, said a buddy is voting for Trump. Ron’s grandkids voted for Sanders, and he isn’t sure where they’ll wind up.

Around the corner, a middle-aged woman admitted she was down on politics because “nothing changes,” but she was vaguely anti-Trump. Norris asked gently whether she’d feel pride in having a woman president. “It would be monumental, I guess,” she mused softly. Her son, a college student, then joined us; he’d voted for Sanders in the primary but said he’d support Clinton in the general. His mother wasn’t sure she’d do the same, but Norris promised to return with literature about Clinton’s plans to raise wages and reduce student debt. A few houses down, a young woman who works as a mental-health counselor confessed she’s pretty apolitical and hadn’t decided between Trump and Clinton. She wanted to know who’s best on issues of “mental-health treatment.” After Norris promised to return with more information on the topic, she thanked him, seeming genuinely grateful.

With Clinton supporters, “we’ll come back to make a plan for getting them to vote, maybe make sure their grandkids vote,” Norris told me. For undecided voters, Working America returns with literature on their issues to help them make up their minds. It carries material from the McGinty and Strickland campaigns as well. “We try to fill the void with information,” Nussbaum explains. She avoids chicken-and-egg arguments about which came first: white working-class economic suffering or a misplaced resentment of racial minorities. She also believes that choosing between the Obama coalition and the white working class is a false dichotomy. “I believe in a multiracial progressive movement that includes white working-class people,” Nussbaum says. “We can’t govern nationally without them. We make either/or choices at our peril. It would be wrong to concede the white working class to an ever bigger, consolidating hard right. We can’t just defeat Trump—we have to defeat Trumpism, or else Democrats are not going to be able to govern.”

* * *

Top Clinton strategist and pollster Joel Benenson agrees. “We are not giving up on white working-class voters,” he tells me, though he admits the campaign’s goal is “to put together a winning coalition,” which means “hitting certain levels with multiple groups.” Benenson knows these voters are crucial to any strategy to beat Trump in the Rust Belt. In 2012, when he worked for Obama’s reelection campaign, the president’s comparatively strong performance there made the difference, and Benenson believes it will do the same this year for Clinton.

As of August, Clinton trailed Trump among white working-class voters 49–31 in Ohio, 50–34 in Pennsylvania, and 42–35 in Iowa, according to NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist polls. She’s not winning, but she’s not wiped out either. It’s also worth noting that Trump’s support among white working-class voters nationally has been falling: A late-August poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found Trump up by 18 points, significantly behind Romney’s 25-point lead in 2012. (A CNN poll taken over Labor Day weekend, however, has whites without college degrees backing Trump 68 percent to 24 percent, an outlier in that it shows Trump with a massive lead.) Pollsters agree that Trump has to outperform Romney with working-class whites to stand a chance, given how poorly he’s doing with everyone else.

I asked Ruy Teixeira what the Democrats could do to attract more of these voters. In their 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority, Teixeira and John Judis identified the rising “Obama coalition.” But now, both writers warn the party against forsaking struggling white voters entirely. Judis makes a persuasive case in his forthcoming book, The Populist Explosion, that the remarkable candidacies of Sanders and Trump, along with the right-and left-wing insurgencies in Europe, have their roots in the white working class’s economic dislocation—something that the left must address. “Maybe you don’t need the white working class in order to win the presidency,” Teixeira says, “but you need them to accomplish anything else you want to do.” He’s right: Democrats can’t win majorities in the Senate or House, or prevail in state legislatures, without a stronger showing among this cohort.

But when it comes to what the party can do to win more of them back, Teixeira is less certain. Though many of these struggling voters believe that Democrats, especially Obama, have turned their backs on them, in fact “people fail to realize how much [Obama] has accomplished,” he argues, citing the 2009 stimulus, the Affordable Care Act, and the auto-industry restructuring, all of which helped white workers. For the last few years, Teixeira and I have participated in a roundtable (along with other scholars, labor activists, and writers, including Judis and Nussbaum) on the white working class, organized by Democratic strategist Ed Kilgore. Virtually every position the group recommended to appeal to white working-class voters has been incorporated into the Democratic platform. What more can Hillary Clinton and the party do?

Teixeira believes that Clinton’s domestic program—from expanded infrastructure spending and paid family leave to debt-free college and subsidized child-care programs—“will make it easier for [white working-class voters] to get ahead.” But he thinks winning back a majority will require “a full-employment economy with rising wages”—the kind of economy fostered by the Keynesianism of the mid-20th century. Yet policies to re-create that kind of economy would need at least some support from Republicans, Teixeira points out. And right now, Republicans rely on white working-class voters to support their filibuster against any Democratic agenda.

And so we return to our conundrum: Did white working-class economic anxiety spur the group’s turn to the Republicans, as well as to racism and resentment? Or did racism and resentment lure those voters away from the Democrats and over to a party that pushes policies that actually worsen their economic standing? Progressives have been battling this out for years now. I side with UC Irvine’s Michael Tesler, who’s been studying the role of “racial resentment” in political divisions since Obama took office. From the Tea Party to the Trump phenomenon, he’s found that voters who score high on surveys designed to measure racial resentment are more likely to say that economic conditions are bad under Obama; those who are more “racially sympathetic” see, accurately, that the economy has improved dramatically since 2009. Tesler has found similar divisions between Trump supporters and detractors.

In the end, though, the struggling white working class has a moral claim on progressives, as well as a political one. Whole pockets of the industrial Midwest and South have been left out of the 21st century, and pessimism and resentment can’t help but fester. Rising white mortality rates, largely due to addiction and mental illness, deserve attention. The resurgent populist, pro-opportunity, and anti-oligarchy left wing of the Democratic Party has pushed politicians, including Clinton, to embrace many policies—on trade, union rights, Social Security, and education—that many hope will win back this cohort.

If Clinton and the Democrats can find a way to fuse the Obama coalition with the remains of the mainly white New Deal coalition, they will be unbeatable. And if they can’t win back a majority of struggling whites with this appeal, at least it won’t be because they didn’t try.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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