Surprising numbers of white working-class voters will support the Democratic agenda—if Democrats promise to reform the government that would carry it out.
By Stan Greenberg
This article is featured in the June/July/August 2015 issue of Washington Monthly. The Washington Monthly and the Democratic Strategist are jointly sponsoring an online roundtable discussion of this article. Please go to http://thedemocraticstrategist-roundtables.com/ for an ongoing compilation of contributions.
Democrats cannot win big or consistently enough, deep enough down the ticket or broadly enough in the states, unless they run much stronger with white working-class and downscale voters. That includes running better with white working-class swing voters, of course. But it also includes winning more decisively with white unmarried women, a demographic group that, along with minority and Millennial voters, is integral to the Democrats’ base in a growing American majority that I call the Rising American Electorate. Working-class whites and white unmarried women are both key to competing in the states where Republicans are pursuing a conservative governing agenda unchecked and to keeping Democratic voters engaged in both presidential and off-year elections.
When the economy crashed in 2008, Obama won white unmarried women by a whopping 20 points (60 to 40 percent) and came within 6 points of winning white working-class women (47 to 53 percent), though he still lost white male working-class voters by 24 points and got only 37 percent of the white working-class vote. But the size of the Democrats’ prospective national majority was clearly diminished by what then happened with these downscale, mostly working-class voters. In his reelection in 2012, Obama won white unmarried women by just a 4-point margin, and in the 2014 midterms, Democrats almost split their votes with the Republicans, getting only a 2-point margin. Hillary Clinton is just running even with the prospective Republican candidates among white unmarried women right now.
After the 2008 wave election that rejected the policies of George W. Bush, white working-class women quickly dialed down their Democratic support to about 38 percent, working-class men to 33 percent. That holds true for Clinton against her potential Republican rivals. There remains an undecided bloc that could allow Clinton to run stronger than this suggests, though she clearly has inherited the problem with struggling, downscale white working-class voters, both inside and outside the Democrats’ base.
These voters, as we shall see, are open to an expansive Democratic economic agenda—to more benefits for child care and higher education, to tax hikes on the wealthy, to investment in infrastructure spending, and to economic policies that lead employers to boost salaries for middle- and working-class Americans, especially women. Yet they are only ready to listen when they think that Democrats understand their deeply held belief that politics has been corrupted and government has failed. Championing reform of government and the political process is the price of admission with these voters. These white working-class and downscale voters are acutely conscious of the growing role of big money in politics and of a government that works for the 1 percent, not them.
It is possible that their cynicism about government is grounded in a fundamental individualism and long-standing American skepticism about intrusive government. And it also may be rooted in a race-conscious aversion to government spending that they believe fosters dependency and idleness—the principal critique of today’s conservative Republicans. If that is the prevailing dynamic, no appeal, no matter how compelling, would bring increased support for government activism.
Yet the white working-class and downscale voters in our surveys do support major parts of a progressive, activist agenda, particularly when a Democratic candidate boldly attacks the role of money and special interests dominating government and aggressively promotes reforms to ensure that average citizens get both their say and their money’s worth. These findings came out of innovative research conducted in partnership with Page Gardner’s Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund and David Donnelly’s Every Voice.
In recent years, too many Democrats have presumed that the white working class is out of the party’s reach and that talk of reforming government and the political process simply does not move voters. My contention is that both of those presumptions are wrong. An agenda of reform is the key to Democrats winning the greater share of white working-class and unmarried women votes that will give the party the majorities it needs to govern.
The macro economy is recovering and job growth is robust, yet this hasn’t altered the structural changes that leave all working-class Americans struggling to keep up with the cost of living or struggling just to afford something extra. This includes key segments of the new American majority, like white unmarried women. They are more likely to be raising children on their own; a majority never attained a four-year college degree; and their median income of $37,410 is $13,607 below the national median. It also includes broad swaths of the white working class, both women and men.
Both groups are almost equally frustrated with the direction of the country, the political class, and government. A striking three-quarters of white working-class Americans now think that the country is on the wrong track, as do two-thirds of white unmarried women from all income levels. A daunting 71 percent of white working-class men and 64 percent of white working-class women disapprove of the job Obama is doing, but so do 55 percent of white unmarried women.
Nearly 60 percent of white unmarried women say that the path to the middle class is blocked because jobs don’t pay enough to live on, and they reject the idea that you can still reach the middle class in tough times through hard work. Unmarried women are the heart of the new majority, yet unmarried white women feel stymied more than any other section of the Rising American Electorate. And they look very similar in attitude to white working-class women, 56 percent of whom say they are prevented from reaching the middle class. A small plurality of white working-class men still thinks hard work can get you there. So the white working-class women and the unmarried women evidently are struggling more and feel more hindered than white working-class men in this low-wage economy.
Given the huge economic changes and challenges facing working people, we should not be surprised that they think government has not been part of the solution for them. In the spring of 2010—a year into the implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—Democracy Corps asked voters, “Who are the main beneficiaries of the Economic Recovery Act?” Almost half, 45 percent, said that unemployed Americans benefited a lot or some from the act, and a lesser amount, 34 percent, said the middle class was benefiting. But three-quarters said the big banks and financial institutions were the beneficiaries, and 50 percent said they benefited a lot—more than eight times the number who said that for the middle class. White working-class men were particularly outraged, with six in ten saying that the banks benefited a lot. White working-class respondents were the ones most likely to say that they themselves were not benefiting: just one in five said they benefited from the Economic Recovery Act.
After that, they watched the Supreme Court rally to protect the free speech rights of corporations and saw the flood of unregulated and secret campaign donations and TV advertising. This has led to a new level of public revulsion with politics and support for fundamental reforms. Super PACs are not arcane institutions. They are known by more than half of the voters and detested: seven times as many people react to them negatively as positively. The public knew that the Citizens United Supreme Court decision was a sham from the outset and very quickly concluded that the new fund-raising regime of big donors and secret money damaged something fundamental. Two-thirds were convinced that the system “undermines democracy”—54 percent believed that strongly.
For the public, the consequences of this legalized system of secret and unlimited donations are self-evident. When they are asked which of the following has the most influence on members of Congress, the public puts “special interest groups and lobbyists” and “campaign contributors” in a league of their own: 59 percent say the first have the most influence, and 46 percent the second. Those groups are seen to wield the influence in Washington, as political parties pale in power: just 29 percent choose party leaders as most influential. And when it comes to the “views of constituents,” only 15 percent say they matter the most.
While white working-class women are more likely to see campaign contributors and party leaders as having the most influence, white working-class men again cite special interest groups and lobbyists: amazingly, 60 percent say these groups hold the cards in Washington.
Why, then, would working-class voters and lower-income Americans turn to government to bring change? They are not crazy. Everything they have seen says that government is gridlocked and is bought and paid for by big donors and special interests, and politicians rig the system for the most irresponsible companies. Special interests push up spending and lobby for special tax breaks for themselves, and government spends with little thought for the average citizen.
Democrats have run so poorly with white working-class and downscale voters since 2008 that some observers have concluded that Democrats are blocked structurally. Democratic identification with the new American majority presumably puts these white working-class voters out of reach. Trying to win these voters is seen as a fool’s errand.
That conclusion is misguided. First, as we have seen, many white downscale voters in the Democratic base hold similar views about the economy and government as do white working-class swing voters. Second, the conclusion presumes that the white working class is still largely employed in industrial occupations, while, in fact, large portions are lower-paid, service-sector employees, a majority of whom are women. And third, the belief that the white working class is increasingly out of reach for Democrats is to a large degree a story of the South and the rural Conservative Heartland, not the story of white working-class voters in the rest of the country. Democrats still can and do compete for white working-class voters in three-quarters of the country.
A majority—54 percent—of white non-college-educated voters are women. Job growth today mostly comes for customer service professionals, retail and sales clerks, home health aides, and fast food workers—professions dominated by women—and the average wage for those jobs is dramatically below the median income. These women struggle with jobs that don’t pay enough to live on, manage employment and kids without help, suffer from the enduring gender pay gap, and often have to piece together multiple jobs to get to a decent income. They get by without much help balancing work and family obligations from either businesses or government. They may notice that things are quite different for the 1 percent, which gets all the help it needs.
The 19 percent of the electorate comprised of white non-college-educated women is indeed very open to government helping working families with education and college affordability and building a more secure safety net. These lower-income women want their money’s worth, but they are very much within the Democratic Party’s reach.
The hurdles to reaching the white working class look so daunting because of the success of Republicans in building up huge margins with those voters in the South, the plains, and the Rocky Mountain region. Obama won only 25 percent of white non-college-educated voters in the South and 33 percent in the Mountain West. And Democrats have been losing ground in political support and party identification with the most religiously observant, racially conscious, and rural white working-class voters in those regions. Voter attitudes about blacks and Hispanics, the role of women, traditional marriage, abortion, and religion there pose very different challenges that do indeed put most of these voters out of reach.
It is important to remember, however, that three-quarters of American voters live outside these conservative Republican strongholds. In the rest of the country, the battle for the swing white working-class and downscale voters is very much alive. In the East and the Midwest, support for the two parties is split down the middle, and since 2000 this identification with the two parties has remained very stable. On election day in 2012, Obama won 40 percent of the white non-college-educated voters outside the Republicans’ regional bases. That number still poses a problem, but it would not take major gains with these voters to change the Democrat Party’s fortunes in these areas.
Voters in the midterm elections of 2014 were ready to rally to candidates who would attack this corrupt system. Precious few candidates understood that voters had moved far ahead of the politicians.
Three-quarters of voters in the twelve most competitive Senate battleground states in 2014—states flooded with campaign money—support a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling. Three in five of those voters support “a plan to overhaul campaign spending by getting rid of big donations and allowing only small donations to candidates, matched by taxpayer funds.” The American citizenry has become progressively more supportive of barring big donors and corporate mega-contributions and using public funds to empower small donations. Even in the face of charges that public funding is “welfare for politicians,” voters in the midterms said that they would rally to a candidate who argues that “we need a government of, by and for the people—not government bought and paid for by wealthy donors.”
Democrats lost badly in the Senate battleground states, located primarily in the South and most rural areas of the country. Yet one of the most effective campaign attacks we tested linked big donations to politicians advancing the interests of wealthy donors who used unlimited, secret money to make sure that billionaires’ and CEOs’ taxes remained artificially low and their loopholes stayed protected.
The power of this attack comes from the central role of the corrupt Washington and Wall Street nexus in the new economy. While working-class men struggled, the Republican candidate was helping government work for big corporations and special interests.
When Democracy Corps tested this attack in Louisiana, North Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, Colorado, and the other Senate battleground states, it was among the most powerful attacks on the Republican candidates.
Of course, none of the Democratic candidates ran that ad.
We asked presidential-year voters to react to a battery of bold initiatives that could form a Democratic economic agenda for 2016. They include policies to protect Medicare and Social Security, investments in infrastructure to modernize the country, a cluster of policies to help working families with child care and paid leave, and new efforts to ensure equal pay and family leave for women. Voters embraced these initiatives, and they tested more strongly than a Republican alternative.
Yet most important for our purposes are the results for white unmarried women and working-class women. These groups both put a “streamline government” initiative ahead of everything except protecting Social Security and Medicare. They want to “streamline government and reduce waste and bureaucracy to make sure every dollar spent is a dollar spent serving people, not serving government.” They gave even greater importance than white working-class men to streamlining government. For these women, being on the edge means feeling more strongly that government should pinch pennies and start working for them.
At the outset of the 2016 presidential election cycle, I tested a middle-class economic narrative that ended with a call for an economy that works for working people and the middle class again. The narrative begins with the recognition that people are drowning, jobs don’t pay enough, and people are struggling to pay the bills despite all their hard work. At the heart of the narrative is an intention to use government to help, including assistance with making college and child care affordable and ensuring equal pay for working women. It also includes tax credits for low-wage workers and the middle class and a promise to protect Medicare and Social Security.
When we tested this narrative among likely 2016 voters in January 2015 in a poll conducted for Democracy Corps and the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund, over 70 percent of presidential-year voters said that they found it convincing, and almost 40 percent responded with intense support. More important in the context of the national elections, that narrative tested about 20 points more convincing to voters than an alternative conservative economic narrative that faulted Democrats for leaving so many people struggling and offered instead a small government route to growth; it similarly outperformed a conservative Tea Party narrative that pushed back against government overreach.
This narrative speaks to all members of the Rising American Electorate. Fully 78 percent of the growing coalition of young people, unmarried women, and minorities said the narrative was convincing—dramatically higher than the vote share they gave to Democrats even in the best years. Unmarried women, in particular, were moved. A stunning eight in ten found it convincing, and nearly half chose “very convincing.” The narrative got its strongest generational support from the Millennials, but it was nearly matched by the enthusiasm of the Baby Boomers.
The middle-class economic narrative got the attention of white working-class voters, too. They have not been great fans of government activism in recent decades, to put it mildly, and they have only been giving Democrats about a third of their votes. Yet an impressive 71 percent of white non-college-educated women embrace this narrative when it is presented to them; 41 percent do so strongly. In a head-to-head comparison, white working-class women find the Democrats’ middle-class economic narrative slightly more convincing than the Republicans’ conservative, small government economic narrative. While white working-class men responded less intensely to this middle-class economic narrative, 62 percent still found it convincing—and that is only 5 points below their support for the competing conservative small government narrative.
Independents also gave a slight edge (60 to 55 percent) to the Democrats’ middle-class economic narrative that places government activism on behalf of the working and middle class at its core.
What really strengthens and empowers the progressive economic narrative, however, is a commitment to reform politics and government. That may seem ironic or contradictory, since the narrative calls for a period of government activism. But, of course, it does make sense: Why would you expect government to act on behalf of the ordinary citizen when it is clearly dominated by special interests? Why would you expect people who are financially on the edge, earning flat or falling wages and paying a fair amount of taxes and fees, not to be upset about tax money being wasted or channeled to individuals and corporations vastly more wealthy and powerful than themselves?
We have arrived at a tipping point at the outset of the 2016 election cycle, where the demand to reform government is equal to or stronger than the demand to reform the economy. More accurately, reform can make it possible to use governmental policies to help the middle class. In short, it is reform first.
In a straight test, the presidential electorate is as enthusiastic about a reform narrative as the middle-class economic one. The first part of the narrative focuses on big business and special interests that give big money to politicians and then use lobbyists to win special tax breaks and special laws that cost the country billions. The second part emphasizes how special interests and the bureaucracy protect out-of-date programs that don’t work. The bottom line of the narrative is that government reform would free up money so the government could work for middle-class and working families rather than big donors.
Most importantly, when voters hear the reform narrative first, they are then dramatically more open to the middle-class economic narrative that calls for government activism in response to America’s problems.
Among voters who heard the reform message first, 43 percent describe the middle-class economic narrative as very convincing—11 points higher than when they hear the economic message first. Among white working-class voters in particular, this effect produced a 13-point jump in intensity for the Democrats’ middle-class economic message (from 27 to 40 percent).
Clearly, these white working-class and downscale voters are open to a bold Democratic agenda and prefer it to a conservative Republican vision for the country. To win their support, however, voters are demanding, with growing ferocity, that Democrats battle against America’s corrupted politics and for a government that really works for the average citizen. This is the route to a stronger result with white working-class and unmarried women voters and more sustainable victories for Democrats, in 2016 and beyond.