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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

The word is out: Biden needs working class to win

Welcome to SWOT Sunday!

From the Patriotic Millionaires and Jacobin to the New Republic, American Prospect, the Wall Street Journal and even the New York Times, the word is out.  Democrats must propose bold action on economic issues that actually matter to working people, and must not be afraid to call out the rich. The Democrats who are doing that are actually winning.  Who knew?


This is a markedly broader consensus on this issue than existed even a few months ago, and it’s good news.  That’s not to say the battle is over by any means.  We’ll discuss what they’re saying, and not saying, about Democrats’ current position and how it needs to change.


A recent major article in The New Republic, called Yes, Joe Biden Can Win The Working Class Vote,  puts up seven ideas for how Biden can reverse the significant slide with working class voters that has happened just since 2020.  They cover several important studies on this topic, one of which we’ve discussed before. 


Why The Working Class Is The Key To Biden Victory


TNR puts it pretty succinctly:


“Over the past century, no Democrat—with one exception, Biden in 2020 — has ever won the presidency without winning a majority of working-class voters…


63% of all registered voters are “working class” [in this case, and often, defined as people without a college degree.] That’s nearly two-thirds of all voters. …


Battleground swing state voters will likely determine who becomes president (not to mention whether the Senate remains Democratic), and they skew more heavily toward noncollege voters (72 percent).”



Dems Say: Working Class? What Working Class?


TNR says that “last year, a team working for Navin Nayak, president of the Center for American Progress (CAP) Action Fund, reviewed a database containing every press release, tweet, and Facebook post from every House and Senate Democrat during the midterm election year of 2022…The search words “workers,” “wages,” “jobs,” “working families,” and “costs” appeared in only 6 percent of the congressional statements. When you added “economy” and “economic,” the search words appeared in only 11 percent of the documents.”


This was no outlier, as they say.  The Center for Working-Class Politics, YouGov, and Jacobin compiled their own database of 892 campaign websites, representing about 92 percent of all Democratic primary and general election candidates who ran for the House and Senate in 2022.  We covered this study (actually two studies from 2022 and 2024) a little while back.


The percentage of Democratic candidates who mentioned popular economic issues?


-       < 30 percent: the need for higher-paying jobs

-       < 20 percent: the need for paid family and medical leave

-       < 10 percent: the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act

-            5 percent:  $15 minimum wage, perhaps the most politically popular economic policy of our time


Meanwhile, if you ask the voters for THEIR TOP ISSUES, as the nonprofit American Family Voices did across six Midwestern states:


-       37 percent: “The rising cost of living”

-       Ranking second: “Jobs and the economy”


What about those major bills the Biden administration passed?  Democrats don’t talk about those either.  In spite of the fact that the combined effect of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the infrastructure bill, and the CHIPS Act has been to nearly triple the construction of manufacturing facilities [leading to more working class jobs] since Biden took office.


One of the most telling anecdotes in the TNR story was this:

The IRA…was favored by 68 percent of people earning between $50,000 and $99,999. But these working-class people needed the pollsters (from Yale and George Mason) to first explain what the Inflation Reduction Act was. 61% had no idea.


TNR mentions a related, key fact: 85% of people don’t follow the news.  So other methods of communicating with the public must be found.  


They talk about the growing use of “deep canvassing” about issues, and how these conversations can change hearts and minds on both sides of the political divide.  Organizing-based groups are focusing more on “deep canvassing” and “year round engagement,” which builds more commitment than the typical election season “mobilization.” 


But “deep canvassing” won’t help much to elect a Democratic or progressive majority, if candidates are still not speaking voters’ language.


What’s Not Working


In a recent newsletter, the Patriotic Millionaires (who support many progressive causes, especially raising taxes on the rich) pointed out that no one in America can actually live on less than $15 an hour. They made it short and sweet:


“Biden must focus on the minimum wage and the corporate price gouging that is actually driving inflation.”  As you know, to date he is not doing that.


The Wall Street Journal interviewed former Sanders staffer Faiz Shakir, who noted that terms Biden uses to describe his economic approach, such as “building from the middle out and bottom up,” have failed to animate voters. “That’s not a choice, that’s not a friction. That’s not a fight. That’s just a pablum statement,” he said.”  You can only hope it was Biden himself, and not his pitiful comms people, who came up with that pablum statement.


What Is Working


The New York Times’ David Leonhardt, in a recent newsletter, was surprised to see “Democrats leading in six tough Senate races, even as President Biden trails Donald Trump in the same states.”


He adds that “most of the Democrats in these races aren’t merely ahead in the polls; they also have a track record of winning tough races by appealing to voters who are skeptical of the Democratic Party. I think that their use of populism is crucial to that appeal.”


He notes that Republicans are comfortable naming heroes and villains, but Democrats often are not.  These Democrats don’t have a problem with it. 


Campaign Ads That Work


“I’ll never stop fighting to crack down on corporate greed,” Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio says in one ad.


An ad for Senator Jacky Rosen of Nevada boasts that she “took on the big drug companies — and won.” Senator Jon Tester of Montana and Ruben Gallego of Arizona also criticize Big Pharma.


“The rich and the powerful — they don’t need more advocates,” Gallego says in an ad introducing himself to voters. “It’s the people that are still trying to decide between groceries and utilities that need a fighter for them.”


The other main antagonist, says Leonhardt, is China, which the candidates portray as using unfair trade tactics to undermine American jobs. In another Sherrod Brown ad, workers at a washing-machine maker joke about his reputation for looking rumpled, disheveled and wrinkled — and say they don’t care because he fights to protect their jobs against companies that break trade rules.  Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, in one of her ads, says, “We can’t let China steal Wisconsin jobs.”


All Good, But…


There is a lot of compelling data out there that progressive economic policies are broadly popular, even in the suburbs, even with quite a number of Republicans, as well as working class voters broadly.  Labor unions are more popular than ever.  These Senate candidates and others are winning with populist messages.  So why don’t most Democrats get louder on supporting these issues? 


TNR hits the nail on the head when they say:


“Democratic politicians know that voters across the board have moved left on economic issues. What really inhibits them isn’t the suburban haute bourgeoisie, but rich donors.”


You may or may not remember that in 2008, Barack Obama campaigned on a bill called EFCA (Employee Free Choice Act), a labor priority, which would have allowed unions to organize workers through card check campaigns.  This is a lot quicker and easier than lengthy union elections, which give employers lots of opportunity to intimidate workers.  


TNR mentions a sad but instructive story told by John Judis and Roy Teixeira in their book, Where Have All the Democrats Gone? They say that Obama was persuaded to give up on EFCA by three Chicago billionaires: Penny Pritzker, Obama’s campaign finance chair; Lester Crown, an industrialist and financier; and Neil Bluhm, a real estate tycoon.


What Can Progressives Do?


It’s our job to push the Democratic Party and its leadership to do what has to be done, organize the American people to demand it, and run our own candidates to fight for it.  Only by electing more of our people can we build the power to change the party.


We need public campaign financing, so that people like Penny Pritzker can’t dictate what happens here.  We need to run electoral campaigns that focus on organizing people around issues, not on TV ads.  There seems to be a lot more money coming in now to support this kind of organizing. It must get bigger and more sustained over time.


One last thing that rarely gets mentioned but is critically important.  To recruit more working-class and regular people to run for office, we MUST find a way to make campaigns shorter.  People simply cannot afford to take a year or more off from their jobs to campaign. Other countries have campaign periods of no more than a few months.  This wouldn’t cost any money; it would only SAVE money.  There would perhaps be at least some Republicans that would support this.


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