Democrats strategize path to relevance with working-class whites

Democrats’ leading House super PAC assembled party strategists in Washington Thursday to deliver a sobering message and a call to arms: Working-class white voters, once a key piece of the party’s base, no longer trust them to improve the economy, and Democrats have to start addressing specific concerns about jobs and wages now in order to win some of them back in 2018.

The briefing, delivered by House Majority PAC executive director Charlie Kelly and Democratic pollsters Pete Brodnitz and Jill Normington in a basement conference room at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers headquarters, was equal parts reality check and hopeful look forward for Democrats.

President Donald Trump may be struggling in national polls, but that has not given congressional Democrats a boost among whites without college degrees, the presenters warned.

Hillary Clinton got 29 percent of the vote among non-college whites in the 2016 elections, according to exit polls, and generic Democratic congressional candidates got just 33 percent in a new House Majority PAC poll of working-class whites in battleground House districts shared with POLITICO. (Republican incumbents got 43 percent.) Trump’s approval rating, currently in the low 40s among all voters, was 52 percent among working-class whites in House Majority PAC’s poll.

But the early-summer survey of 1,000 non-college white voters in House battlegrounds also highlighted support for Democratic candidates who proposed policies on jobs and the economy, especially ones incentivizing companies to “hire American” and promoting job training programs. The pollsters stressed that Democrats ought to lay out specific plans to help working-class swing voters and rebuild lost credibility with them on economic issues, instead of targeting bogeymen like big corporations.

“We suffer from the lack of an identifiable positive agenda,” Brodnitz and Normington wrote in their presentation of the research. “Without it, voters will turn to Trump for progress. With it, we can make significant gains.”

It may make the difference between a good 2018 election and another disappointing one for Democrats.

Party strategists are increasingly of the belief that the House majority could be up for grabs next year. But the clearest path includes a large swath of heavily working-class districts in the Northeast and Midwest, where Democrats struggled in 2016 and recent midterm elections.

In Iowa’s two GOP-held battleground districts, long considered key ingredients of a potential Democratic House majority, non-college whites comprised 49 percent and 37 percent of the electorate in the last midterm, according to House Majority PAC data. In upstate New York, where freshman Republican Rep. John Faso is one of Democrats’ top targets, 44 percent of midterm voters are non-college whites. In Minnesota, House Democrats must defend three seats that are majority working-class white.

Even in places where more whites have college degrees — a group that has been giving Democrats more and more votes, in districts like freshman GOP Rep. Jason Lewis’ south of the Twin Cities in Minnesota — Democrats still may not be able to win if they keep losing working-class whites by similar margins.

While working-class whites lean toward Republicans, they say Democrats are more likely to “take the right approach on health care,” House Majority PAC’s poll found, a potentially important advantage amid the current health care fight in Congress. But the group also said Republicans are more likely to “help improve the economy and create jobs” by a huge 35-point margin — and almost no one who gave the GOP the advantage on that statement said they would vote for a Democrat for Congress in 2018.

House Majority PAC is arguing for a specific focus on jobs and the economy to close that gap in credibility. While a majority of working-class white voters describe themselves as “pro-choice” on abortion, when asked about budget issues, more said they were concerned about infrastructure spending than funding for Planned Parenthood, Brodnitz and Normington said.

Their polling showed that in addition to long-standing Democratic policy planks like expanding Social Security and protecting Medicare, working-class whites would be especially receptive to candidates who propose rewarding companies that hire American workers with tax breaks and funding job training programs.

Spending on roads and other infrastructure projects was also a big positive with working-class whites.

“If we’re going to make a play for the House, this is the stuff we need to talk about,” said Kelly, the House Majority PAC executive director.

The poll showed Democrats moving into a tie in the generic congressional ballot after respondents heard about Democratic jobs plans, and even moving ahead after hearing attacks on Republicans seeking to “end Medicare as we know it” and the GOP’s Obamacare repeal bills.

The trick for Democrats will be actually getting working-class white voters to hear and believe those messages, though early signs suggest the party is invested in making it happen. The presentation Thursday echoed congressional Democrats’ rollout of their new “Better Deal” slogan and policies focused on boosting jobs and wages.

But the research is also the latest edition in a longer-term House Majority PAC project that started before the stunning election results in November 2016.

Earlier that year, the super PAC’s polling led it to conclude, against the prevailing wisdom among Democrats, that the party’s national focus on college affordability was out of step with the beliefs and hopes of working-class white voters, many of whom did not see college as a guaranteed or even necessary step toward economic success.

That clashes with progressives who have pushed to make free college a central piece of the Democratic platform in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ grassroots-fueled 2016 presidential bid.

But Brodnitz and Normington found that of all the “candidate narratives” tested in their latest poll of working-class whites, the one most likely to convince respondents to back a Democrat for Congress was the argument that people “need to understand that not everyone goes to college” and instead “make sure that skilled workers have the training they need.”

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