House Majority PAC, the main Democratic super PAC involved in House races, has launched a major project studying white working-class voters ahead of the 2018 elections, looking to arrest Democratic losses with the key demographic.
The research is a sequel to an effort the super PAC ran in 2016, when it combined focus group interviews and a large-scale series of polls examining the views of whites without college degrees in key congressional districts.
The initial project informed House Majority PAC’s economic messaging in 2016 — as well as its concerns about focusing on Donald Trump in some districts in last year’s House races. The follow-up reflects growing recognition among Democrats that their party cannot win back political power in Washington or many states without many more votes from whites without college degrees. Democrats are already targeting a number of affluent suburban House districts in the 2018 elections, but the House majority may still hinge on heavily white working-class districts where President Trump performed well in 2016.
“We have to make a broad economic appeal to working men and women across the country. HMP has been committed to this effort,” House Majority PAC executive director Charlie Kelly said. “We have ability to make a real economic case this cycle, and our goal is to help focus back on economic issues that have traditionally been the hallmark of the Democratic Party.”
“For elections like next year’s, there are so many governors up. There are obviously all the House races and key Senate races,” said United Steelworkers political director Tim Waters, one of several labor leaders supporting the House Majority PAC project. “And if the Democratic Party doesn’t get a different message, it’s going to go bad on them in a year when they should make gains.”
House Majority PAC is gathering information on what white working-class voters think about the Democratic Party and how they are reacting to Trump, who spoke directly to many of their concerns in the 2016 campaign. The Democratic super PAC is also testing how voters react to policy proposals that are popular among labor groups and some elected officials — but aren’t perceived as part of the core Democratic Party message.
“We found a lot of good policy proposals, many of which are already advanced by Democratic candidates,” said pollster Jill Normington, who worked on the PAC’s research in 2016 and is involved again in 2017. “Some were trade-related, some were not. A lot focused on the idea that a college education was not a guarantee of economic success. And a lot of the conversation from the Democratic Party [in 2016], whether rightly or wrongly, focused on things like college affordability.”
Student debt and controlling college costs have quickly become a central Democratic policy plank, but House Majority PAC’s 2016 research demonstrated that the focus may not resonate — or might even backfire — with some voters.
“In the last round of research, when we asked people about creating more good jobs, we asked, are you picturing a factory job or an office job?” said Pete Brodnitz, another Democratic pollster working with House Majority PAC. “72 percent to 28 percent, working-class whites said ‘factory.’ Now, other data showed us that telling people they could get free college wasn’t that compelling. … I think there was a theory in the party that [non-college-educated] voters didn’t have college educations because they couldn’t afford it, but they were saying they didn’t want it. And they thought we were telling them their aspirations were faulty.”
The goal of the project is to inject new ideas into the Democratic Party’s policy conversation and try to spread them into states and districts throughout the country ahead of next year’s election.
“My hope from this year is that we can pull together a set of ideas, value statements, policy proposals … and get that information spread as far as we can possibly can so every challenger, incumbent, Senate candidate in the country is looking at what we’re talking about and can see how it works in their jurisdiction,” Normington said.
Losing the 2016 election partly because Trump won two-thirds of whites without college degrees was a wake-up call for the party, said Brodnitz. But he said it’s still important to convince Democrats that they can’t rely on growing numbers of nonwhite voters and college-educated supporters to win elections.
“There’s a lot of focus on the idea that demographic shifts in the country ultimately favor Democrats, but House Majority PAC wanted to take a look at this group of voters,” Brodnitz said. “You can’t ignore a large group of voters and this is a large group — and one that was traditionally good for the Democratic Party and is really important in parts of the country.”
Timing is critical, Waters said, with important midterm elections just around the corner. And addressing the precipitous drop in white working-class support for Democrats in the last decade could be the key ingredient in bringing the party back after 2016.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting the different result,” Waters said. “It’s time to take a look at what’s going on out there, and we’re saying, talk to the voters.”