The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s uphill battle with working-class voters

President Biden talks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on Dec. 6 before leaving for a trip to Phoenix. (Oliver Contreras/for The Washington Post)

Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and politics editor of the Liberal Patriot newsletter. His forthcoming book with John B. Judis is “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?”

Since November’s elections, President Biden has been in Michigan, Arizona, Kentucky and Ohio, touting the job-creating wonders of three big bills he has signed: the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act; the Chips and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act. And he has been at pains to emphasize the blue-collar benefits of these bills: “The vast majority of [the] jobs ... that we’re going to create,” he said, “don’t require a college degree.”

There’s a good reason for Biden to try this tack. Despite Democrats’ unexpectedly good performance in the midterms, there were abundant signs of continued weakness in an absolutely vital part of their coalition: working-class (noncollege) voters. Democrats’ weakness among White working-class voters is well known. According to AP/NORC VoteCast data, Democrats lost the White working-class vote by 25 points in 2020 and 33 points in 2022.

Less well-understood is Democrats’ emerging weakness among non-White working-class voters. Between 2012 and 2020, Democrats’ advantage among these voters declined by 18 points, with a particularly sharp shift in 2020 and among Hispanics. VoteCast data indicates that Democrats’ margin among non-White working-class voters declined 14 points between 2020 and 2022.

Democrats lost the overall working-class vote by a solid 13 points in 2022. When Republicans claim they are becoming the party of the multiracial working class, this is less far-fetched than most Democrats think. In fact, by this data, the GOP already is. No wonder Biden is worried — and he’s right to be.

But will Biden’s turn to the working class work?

Maybe. But then again, maybe not. It is an uncomfortable fact that, despite the very tight labor market of the past two years, most workers have lost ground relative to inflation. And, while the administration touts the projected openings of semiconductor, battery and electric-vehicle plants tied to provisions of the administration’s semiconductor and climate bills, manufacturing today employs less than one-tenth of the country’s services-dominated working class. That is unlikely to change.

Some “green” jobs in solar- and wind-farm construction will be generated by the administration’s spending commitments, but the record so far on these jobs has been spotty. Generally, renewables projects have created short-term construction jobs that bear little resemblance to the jobs workers rightfully aspire to or to the high wage jobs in the fossil-fuel industry they are supposed to replace. A New York Times investigation of jobs in the solar and wind sectors described them as looking less like the mid-century blue-collar jobs that lifted workers into the middle class and more like jobs with “grueling work schedules, few unions, middling wages and limited benefits.”

Biden and his party would do well to remember the key reason they outperformed at the polls in 2022: voters’ distaste for nutty Republicans rather than love for what Democrats have done or stand for. As several studies have shown, Trump-endorsed, MAGA-ish candidates managed to wipe out a good chunk of the expected swing toward the GOP, losing roughly 5 points at the polls relative to more conventional Republicans.

Democrats cannot count on that to continue. Trumpian influence is diminishing inside the GOP but other, less flawed messengers lie in wait to pick up the populist banner. They won’t make such easy targets. Meanwhile, Democrats’ ability to focus on Trump’s misdeeds has been undermined by the recent discovery of classified documents in Biden’s Delaware home and former D.C. office.

Democrats should think instead about trying to shore up their many weaknesses that cut sharply among working-class voters. Democrats went into the last election with double digit disadvantages on immigration and the border (-24 percent), reducing crime (-20 percent), valuing hard work (-15 percent) and being patriotic (-10 percent), according to polling from Third Way.

Change will not be easy. Democrats are very liberal, especially on social issues. Gallup data shows that liberal self-identification has more than doubled among Democrats since 1994, going from 25 percent to 54 percent. And among White Democrats, there has been an astonishing 37 point increase in professed liberalism over the time period. White Democrats are now far more liberal than their Black and Hispanic counterparts.

That deeply affects the image of the party at election time. More voters now think Democrats have moved too far to the left than think the Republicans have moved too far to the right. The fact of the matter is that the cultural left, which is heavily dominated by the burgeoning ranks of liberal Whites, has managed to associate the party with views on crime, immigration, policing, free speech, and, of course, race and gender that are quite far from those of the median voter. That’s a success for the cultural left but an electoral liability for the party.

The idea that Democrats can just turn up the volume on economic issues and ignore sociocultural issues when they are viewed as out of the mainstream is absurd. Culture matters, and the issues to which they are connected matter. They are a hugely important part of how voters assess who is on their side and who is not — whose philosophy they can identify with and whose they can’t.

Thus, to just get in the door with many working-class voters and have them consider their economic pitch, Democrats need to convince these voters that they are not looked down on, their concerns are taken seriously and their views on culturally freighted issues will not be summarily dismissed as unenlightened. With today’s Democratic Party, unfortunately, that is difficult. Resistance has been, and is, stiff to any compromise that might involve moving to the center on such issues, a problem that talking more about economic issues simply ignores.

If the Democrats could do that and had a strong economic case to make, they would be formidable. If not, the 2024 election is likely to be pretty brutal.

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