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The Best Way for Democrats to Win Working-Class Voters

Matt Morrison


Show up on people’s doorsteps, and the recipe is simple: listen and offer compelling solutions and information that’s new to them that they can connect with their lives.

When we asked 4,035 working-class voters in battleground races to name an elected official who was fighting for them, the top response was not a Republican or a Democrat. It was “no one.”

That goes a long way toward explaining why debates among political elites about the strategic direction Democrats must take to win in 2018 and 2020 continue to miss the point. Should Democrats pursue moderate or liberal policies? Should they persuade white working-class voters or mobilize a diverse base? These arguments feel utterly irrelevant to the daily choices of working-class voters.

How do we know? Since Donald Trump’s election, my organization, Working America, a political organizing arm of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., has spoken with 450,000 voters across 17 states. The overwhelming sentiment from these conversations was captured by an African-American voter in central Ohio named Carol (the voters’ last names weren’t provided). Asked to consider the difference in her economic well-being when Democrats are in power versus Republicans, she replied, “Does it even matter?”

Carol, and tens of millions of working people just like her, harbor a deep skepticism that politicians of either party can deliver any kind of meaningful change for them. Our current politics fail to engage working people in a conversation about what matters to them and to draw connections between their lived experience and the reason they should cast a ballot in the first place.

Working-class people share common anxieties about their economic security. Like Carol, they see few solutions from the politicians in either party seeking their vote.

Darren, a white voter in his mid-40s who lives in Philadelphia, said that “we mean nothing” to politicians. “Regular people don’t have money.”

Working-class voters like Darren, a longtime Democrat who voted for Mr. Trump, aren’t ideological; they’re fed up and politically adrift. Persuadable voters like Darren and pessimistic Democrats like Carol are looking for politicians with tangible solutions to help the majority of Americans who have been left out of the country’s growing prosperity.

A voter in Pennsylvania’s 18th District — where Conor Lamb won a special election this year — said, “I care about right here,” as he pointed to his feet on his doorstep. “Tell me what they’re going to do right here.”

Policy prescriptions and white papers don’t overcome this cynicism. The growing number of people living in areas with dwindling newspaper subscriptions or with Sinclair-owned television stations that spend more time on “must run” segments and less time on local issues never even hear the policies in the first place.

For Democrats, simply turning up the volume on political communications through these same channels has not quelled the distrust or broken through. My organization has found that we can get so much more with a different approach: Start where the voters are.

First, our experience running a large-scale, year-round field canvass reveals a somewhat obvious truth. Beginning the conversation by asking, “What matters to you?” instead of telling voters what should matter to them gets a more receptive audience.

Next, when we introduce new information by telling voters about something they don’t know rather than telling them that what they think they know is wrong, you can see the light come on.

Elaine, 70, a white Trump voter in Grove City, Ohio, told us she watches Fox News “in the morning till I go to bed.” Yet when we told her about our push to raise wages and improve working standards, something clicked for her. She shared that her adult children are struggling with low pay and poor benefits.

Like Elaine, two-thirds of Ohio Trump supporters agreed, when we asked them last summer, with a battery of progressive economic policies, including ending employers’ treating workers as independent contractors, so that they’re not saddled with tax and benefit costs, and measures that make it easier to unionize. They had just never heardany politician addressing these issues. The irony is that even where there’s ubiquitous content, people feel less informed. But when swing voters like Elaine can discuss and reason out loud, they can connect powerful stories from their own lives to pragmatic progressive policies — only if they hear about them.

We can’t assume voters like Elaine, Darren and Carol will pull the lever for a progressive in 2018. For this approach to be successful, it must be grounded in more than anecdote and observation. We need evidence that’s produced by clinical research about what changes minds.

An authoritative analysis by the political scientists David Broockman and Josh Kalla comparing nine Working America campaigns with 40 other clinical experiments measuring all major forms of voter communication validated our approach. By engaging in sustained organizing with voters identified via clinical analysis as the best targets, even in communities saturated with campaign communications, we were able to persuade swing voters to vote for Democrats in 2016 in places such as Ohio and to mobilize the party’s base voters in places such as North Carolina.

The recipe is simple: credibility derived from listening, compelling solutions, new information that breaks through and thoughtful analytics. And it works with working-class swing voters and disaffected Democrats equally.

Winning back the confidence of these voters is essential for gaining control of Congress and for building strength in the states ahead of redistricting fights after 2020.

Putting a check on the White House in 2018 won’t fix what’s broken. Radically changing how voters perceive their own agency in relation to politics will. Follow this recipe and progressives can win and govern for a generation.

This opinion was originally published by the New York Times on September 24, 2018.


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