Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Whither White Working Class Voters?

Ron Brownstein has an interesting piece out on the Democrats and white working class voters. I don't think I agree with the headline and theme, "This may be the Democrats’ last chance to recover working-class Whites" but it's still worth a read. He reviews relevant data from the 2020 election that show Biden's modestly improved performance relative to Hillary Clinton among this demographic as well as more recent data on Biden approval ratings that indicate little uptick in his white noncollege support since the election. Oddly he ignores the Catalist data which I still think is the best data source out there on 2020 election demographics and trends.
Brownstein highlights the continuing contention in Democratic ranks on whether and how much the party should attempt to appeal to white working class voters. As he summarizes:
"Party centrists often cite the need to hold as many blue-collar White voters as possible, particularly across the Rust Belt, to justify a more moderate approach; liberals often complain that an excessive focus on those generally culturally conservative Whites leads the party to downplay causes, like aggressive action on climate and racial equity, that could energize more younger and non-White voters, particularly in emerging Sun Belt battlegrounds such as Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina and eventually Texas."
He gives both sides a chance to state their case. For the "White working class voters? We don' need no stinkin' white working voters!" camp we have the oft-quoted Steve Phillips:
“The electoral danger” in Biden’s strategy of focusing so heavily on recapturing blue-collar voters, says Steve Phillips, founder of the advocacy group Democracy in Color, is that “Democrats will be so focused on not alienating Whites that they will mute the policy agenda that could excite the sectors of the electorate which are much more receptive.” And those voting blocs, Phillips adds, “people of color and young people, are also the growing parts of the population.”...
“All of the obsessing over a 3% uptick in White non-college polling numbers [for Biden] misses the larger and more important reality: There is a ceiling for Democrats [with them] so long as they are seen as the party affiliated with people of color. Are we really supposed to get excited over 32% support instead of Clinton’s 29%?” says Phillips, author of the upcoming book “How We Win the Civil War.” “Isn’t the dominant, and consistent, reality the nonsupport?”
While Biden has framed his public identity around courting blue-collar Whites, Phillips says, the party would be better served by investing more “in efforts to increase turnout of people of color” especially across the Sun Belt; focusing more on causes that energize young people (including racial justice and climate change); and redirecting “some of the millions of dollars spent on research and data analysis on trying to better understand how to increase White support for racial justice instead of the current practice of seeking magic words for Democratic candidates by downplaying any connection to people of color.”
Taifa Smith Butler is also quite sure there's no real need for those pesky white working class voters:
"Similarly, Taifa Smith Butler, the new president of Demos, a liberal think tank focused on racial equity, told me, “As this nation becomes majority people of color you will have to think about the broader coalition of the electorate.” Democrats, she said, “cannot kowtow” to an older White electorate at the price of sublimating the priorities of “marginalized communities … that we could be lifting up and elevating” rather than “continuing to try to appease White moderates.”
For the opposing side, we have Sean McElwee (though I'm not sure I'd describe him as a moderate or centrist--more of a pragmatist):
"The counter view in the party is that even the very small gains among working-class voters remain pivotal. Exit polls in 2020 found that among these non-college White voters, Biden did improve slightly over Clinton in Pennsylvania and more substantially in Wisconsin and Michigan. Those gains were modest, notes Sean McElwee, a leading pollster for progressive causes, but they had an outsized impact by helping Biden recapture the three Rust Belt states that keyed Trump’s 2016 victory....
“When you are dealing with a demographic group as large as non-college Whites, any sort of difference matters,” says McElwee.
McElwee says the evidence is that only a very small number of working-class Whites may be open to persuasion from Biden, but “the problem is that increasingly small groups of people are still determinative in politics.” He adds: “If you look at how close these margins are in Michigan or in Pennsylvania, we can’t afford to lose 2 to 3 points with non-college Whites because it is such a big demographic. “
McElwee is optimistic that Biden’s kitchen table agenda ultimately will propel at least some gains with blue-collar voters: In polling that his company Data for Progress has done for the advocacy group Fighting Chance for Families, for instance, Trump voters who have received the child tax credit express much more positive views about it than those who have not."
And then there's this guy Teixeira who I suppose does qualify as a centrist, despite social democratic views that would have made him a party leftist not so long ago:
"Ruy Teixeira, a veteran Democratic analyst now at the Center for American Progress, agrees that economic issues will take Democrats only so far. Biden’s “theory of the case is that we are going to deliver for the masses of honest workers in America … and the people who don’t like us, the suspicious non-college White voters, are going to be able to overcome their cultural reservations about the party,” says Teixeira, who has written extensively on the evolving Democratic coalition. “But the theory that you can just do good economics stuff and ignore the rest … is probably mistaken.”
Teixeira believes Biden’s strategy of downplaying cultural issues is insufficient: He argues that the President must more explicitly reject the left’s positions on issues such as crime, much as Bill Clinton did during the 1990s."
The debate will no doubt continue for quite some time. 2022 should provide some more signals about who's right.
The one thing I really think is missing from Brownstein's analysis is the implication that the Democrats' "blue collar" problem is all about working class whites. It's not. As I have previously noted in my substack piece on the nonwhite working class:
1. While nonwhite voters as a whole moved toward the GOP in the 2020 election, working class (noncollege) nonwhites moved more sharply toward Trump than college nonwhites (12 margin points vs. 7 points, based on the two party vote).
2. Working class nonwhite women actually moved more toward Trump (14 points) than working class nonwhite men (9 points).
3. Since 2012, running against Trump twice, Democrats have lost 18 points off of their margin among nonwhite working class voters.
4. Working class voters still vastly outnumber college-educated voters. Among whites, working class voters were a bit over three-fifths of the vote. But among nonwhites, the working class contingent was a full two thirds of voters in 2020. This suggests trends among working class nonwhites will likely determine the future of the nonwhite vote.
In my view, the struggle to improve Democrats' performance among working class whites is closely related to Democrats' emerging imperative to stop the bleeding among working class nonwhites.
In other words, the Democrats have a *working class* problem that cuts across racial categories, not just a white noncollege problem.

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