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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

Three keys to winning working-class voters - @Jacobin study

Updated: 6 days ago

Welcome to Message Monday!

I just now learned about an extremely important 2023 study from Jacobin, ASU’s Center for Work and Democracy, and the Center for Working-Class Politics called “Trump’s Kryptonite: How Progressives Can Win Back The Working Class."  This is a follow-up to a 2021 study.

PS, though I am not a socialist, I subscribe to Jacobin and find it absolutely essential reading.  It’s so refreshing because it brings something important, provocative and new in every issue, and unlike some other left publications, doesn’t constantly regurgitate the same mainstream liberal talking points and blind spots.

The study’s title reflects, I think, an effort to identify the “kryptonite” that could kill Trump’s appeal to the working class.  It finds that the GOP could lose as many as 38% of working-class voters in an election where the Democrat candidate is more appealing than the GOP candidate for various reasons.  All GOP voters are more likely to stay home than vote for a Democrat, but having them not vote is still advantage: Democrats. 

Full disclosure, I have not parsed the study in depth as of yet.  I will discuss mostly three key points that jumped out at me, in terms of what it takes to win elections.

There was an interesting story on this in the American Prospect.  While my analysis of what’s most important here differs from theirs, they did bring one key point that I will discuss.


In its executive summary, the study notes some obvious truths.

The Democratic Party continues to lose working-class voters. Although Democrats avoided a wipeout in the 2022 midterms, their twenty-first century coalition struggles to win majorities outside its metropolitan fortresses…

“These struggles reflect the party’s difficulty in winning back its historic constituency among the broad working class, a problem for which neither moderates nor progressives have demonstrated a consistently replicable solution.

Since 2020, however, at least some progressives have begun to [dedicate] more attention to bread-and-butter economic issues they hope will resonate…and re-engage the labor movement to win back working-class votes.”

CWCP aims to provide research that will help progressives expand their appeal among working-class voters, in the hope of achieving our shared political goals. 

The earlier study, which primarily used education as a proxy for class:

“We designed a unique survey experiment that asked participants to choose between hypothetical pairs of candidates. We found that candidates who deployed populist messaging, who advocated bold progressive economic policies, and who came from working-class backgrounds were more likely to win support among working-class voters… There is a lot of detail on what these messages look like in the study, and I encourage you to check it out.

The new study, which used occupational groups to allow a more granular view of different groups within the working class:

We next sought to investigate the state of such candidates in the real world today: Who are the working-class champions, where are they running, and how are they performing? To answer these questions, the CWCP, in collaboration with the Center for Work and Democracy at Arizona State University and Jacobin magazine, has collected and analyzed data on the 966 candidates who ran in Democratic primaries and general elections for the House and Senate in 2022.

First key: Working class voters can bring home purple states.

The study found that candidates who use class-based populist messaging are particularly popular with the blue-collar workers Democrats need to win in many “purple” states.

Another way to describe the importance of these voters is, Democrats and the GOP have nearly equal support overall in “purple” states.  There are not many people who don’t fall into one camp or the other, so pulling some people from the “other side,” as well as turning out occasional voters, is key to winning here. Blue-collar GOP voters can be swayed and turned out if the message and messenger is right.

Manual workers, a group that gave majority support to Trump in 2020, favor economic populist candidates more strongly than any other occupational group. Low-propensity [occasional] voters also have a clear preference for these candidates. The only groups who had a negative reaction to economic populist candidates were urban independents and small-business owners.  

Second key:  Working class messages don't work as well with elite areas or people.

Among Democrats and Republicans alike, working class voters respond more positively to economic populist messages and working class candidates than professional/managerial voters do.  These class-based preferences persist across racial and ethnic groups. 

Democrats using these messages did best in districts with a lot of working class voters.  They didn't always win their elections there, but they showed measurably higher support. The messages did not perform as well in districts with more managerial/professional voters.

This is why it would be so much better to have our own progressive party.

Things being what they are, progressives would do well to build power overall and within the Democratic Party, by prioritizing an economic populist message in working class districts and areas, be they non-coastal, rural, urban or suburban.  Building power within the party (or for a new party) can’t be done without winning more elections.

It's become very clear to me, not just through this study, that many elite (or if you prefer, managerial/professional) Democrats are very, very disconnected from the working class. They assume working class voters are stupid and racist, and that there's no point trying to appeal to them as Democrats or with progressive policy. The stance is widespread and they will defend it aggressively.

We would need a long-term education campaign to change this, and some of the elite will never be won over. Which is OK. Those progressive candidates in elite areas who understand the need for a broader base can incorporate the working class messages. They would just need to do it in a way that unites people around common interests, and doesn’t pit one against the other.


Third key: Reposition the competition.

Here’s where the American Prospect analysis by Harold Meyerson comes in.  He is most struck by the fact that most Democratic candidates don’t even mention the divisive cultural issues that the party is identified with

He notes that most Democrats in the study do talk about abortion and about a quarter talk about LGBT issues.  Only about 10% talk about undocumented immigrants. 

And of the other 40 farther-left issues, “ranging from reparations and defunding the police to open borders and gender identity—the share of Democratic candidates who had so much as a word to say averaged under 5 percent, and for a number of these issues, was a flat zero…How has the Democratic Party come to be defined by issues and concerns that its candidates and officeholders don’t even talk about?”

Democratic candidates may not be talking about these things.  But Fox News, right wing social media, et al are hanging them around Democrats’ necks every minute of the day. 

Meyerson notes, correctly, “It was right after the Soviet Union collapsed that the right’s savviest strategists—Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich in particular—understood the need to identify some other menace [than communism] to hearth and home, and refocused their attention on gays, lesbians, and the academy. (Blacks, of course, had been a perennial menace and immigrants a cyclical one, but the right still needed an overarching demonic force, which the cultural left, if sufficiently magnified by right-wing media, had potential to provide.) [my emphasis]”

He goes on to say that “Saddled with an economic perspective that’s actually injurious to most voters, Republicans have a constant need to demonize their opponents, and that demonization, rooted in fabrications and mischaracterizations, will continue no matter how the Democrats respond. Their best response, though, is to champion and enact policies that make voters’ lives better.”

Meyerson’s definition of the “best response,” though, is not quite right. His analysis reminded me of one of my favorite books, the iconic book about marketing, “Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind” by Al Ries and Jack Trout.

In the minds of working class voters, the GOP has replaced the Democrats as the party that speaks for them.  Reis and Trout say that “for a repositioning strategy to work, you must say something about your competitor’s product that causes the prospect to change his or her mind, not about your product, but about the COMPETITOR’S product.”  Because that’s the image the prospect has in his mind, and it’s established.  You’ll make more of an impact if  you riff off that existing idea.

An example they give is about Tylenol, the number one brand of analgesic, at least when this book was written. At that time, most people took aspirin if they had a headache or something and didn’t think much about it.  Tylenol is not aspirin, but acetaminophen. 


So Tylenol did an ad saying in part, “For the millions who should not take aspirin, because your stomach is easily upset, or you suffer from asthma or allergies…aspirin can irritate the stomach and trigger asthmatic or allergic reactions…Fortunately there’s Tylenol!”  Tylenol’s sales took off.

A good approach to repositioning the GOP with working class voters might be something like this.  “For the millions who need medication, and need elected officials to fight big drug companies instead of voting for them. For the millions who work for a living, and need representatives who will stop big corporations from cutting their wages and speeding up their work instead of voting for them. For the millions who need help feeding their families more than putting an end to drag queen story hours…Fortunately there’s the Democratic Party!"

Then you could direct people to a website with more detail on how "We’ve forced drug companies to negotiate prices with the government.  We’ve sued Starbucks for firing union workers.  We’ve given states money to feed poor children in the summer when school is closed.”  Etc.


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