Some Democratic candidates used Wednesday night’s debate to speak to those concerns, without exacerbating the concerns of the left’s most marginalized and without painting the white working-class with stereotypical brushes.
When Trump launched his campaign in June 2015, he said:
“Our real unemployment is anywhere from 18 to 20 percent. Don’t believe the 5.6. Don’t believe it. That’s right. A lot of people up there can’t get jobs. They can’t get jobs, because there are no jobs, because China has our jobs and Mexico has our jobs. They all have jobs.”
That may not have been true, but it was powerful. And the president ultimately won more than 65 percent of the white working-class vote in 2016.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) is a lower-tier presidential hopeful who has built his political brand around reorienting Democrats’ pitch to moderates and Midwestern working-class voters. He had his strongest moment of the debate on that topic.
We have a perception problem with the Democratic Party. We are not connecting to the working-class people in the very states that I represent in Ohio, in the industrial Midwest. We’ve lost all connection. We have got to change the center of gravity of the Democratic Party from being coastal elitist and Ivy League, which is the perception, to somebody from the forgotten communities that have been left behind for the last 30 years, to get those workers back on our side so we can say we’re going to build electric vehicles, we’re going to build solar panels.
And in a breakout moment for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, he told those voters that Trump had sold them a bill of goods.
We’re not being honest about the division that’s been fomented in this country: the way that American citizens have been told that immigrants somehow created their misery and their pain and their challenges. For all the American citizens out there who feel you’re falling behind or feel the American Dream is not working for you, the immigrants didn’t do that to you. . . . The big corporations did that to you. The 1 percent did that to you.
De Blasio’s approach suggested a path toward winning the white working class without neglecting the demographics that have been most loyal to the Democratic Party — something that has been a major topic of concern among the left ever since Trump’s win with the demographic led liberals to seriously rethink their campaigning, tribes and values.
After examining the election results, Ruy Teixeira, a political scientist, wrote a study for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, about how the left can connect differently with white working-class voters. He talked to the National Journal about that study a year after the 2016 election and said:
“Calling these voters a bunch of racists is toxic. You’ve got to acknowledge these voters have real problems and their communities are declining. You have to cut the deficit you’re experiencing with noncollege white voters, particularly in states where they’re dominant, like in the Rust Belt.”
But the pushback from some of the left’s most vocal demographics has been intense. Liberals argued that the Democratic Party needed to be loyal to those who had consistently shown their support for the party — black Americans, women and the LGBT community, among other marginalized groups.
However, De Blasio showed Democratic candidates that if given the chance to court the white working class, it can be done in a way that doesn’t alienate other wings of the party. The candidates seemed to want to find a way to connect with those who were drawn to Trump’s divisive message without losing the people who stand to be harmed by it.