Report: Bridging the Divide
The 2016 election laid bare the deep discontent that’s been brewing among America’s working class. Whether black or white, Latino or Asian, working-class Americans have been buffeted by economic and social forces that seem beyond their control. For decades, they’ve watched as wages have stagnated and good jobs have become hard to find. Many have come to feel that government isn’t working for them and that politicians aren’t representing their interests.
A profound disaffection with politics was at the root of the Democrats’ devastating losses up and down the ballot in 2016. And those losses have been building for years. Since 2008, Democrats have resoundingly lost the elections where Barack Obama was not on the ballot, and a substantial share of those defeats was due to a lack of support from working-class voters, especially in small towns and exurbs.
In response to this crisis, Working America believes progressives must invest in sustained, face-to-face organizing that reaches all potential progressive voters. Instead of just engaging in TV-driven air wars and three months of direct voter contact every two years, progressives must be on the ground at all times reaching out to communities of color, millennials and women as well as the millions of white working-class voters who are open to a progressive agenda. While this paper focuses on electoral strategies, we know progressives must engage in robust organizing that creates lasting relationships between voters and institutions if we’re going to build a more just and humane society.
Working America’s Role in Rebuilding a Multiracial Progressive Coalition that Includes White Working-Class Moderates
Working America knows it’s possible to build a multiracial progressive coalition by reaching both the rising American electorate and the white working-class moderates like those who swung from Obama to Trump. We know because for 14 years we’ve been on the ground in working-class neighborhoods. We are active in cities like Philadelphia and states like North Carolina where our membership and the electorate is strongly African American. We also have experience in Latino neighborhoods, helping to inspire Latino voters in New York City municipal elections and running bilingual canvasses in Houston and Orlando. Yet our greatest strength is having conversations with white working-class voters that break through the right-wing noise machine and show how progressive politics can improve their lives.
Across America, there are millions of white working-class moderates who are open to progressive ideas. Many of them live in the battleground states Barack Obama won in 2012. But in 2016 those white working-class moderates shifted decisively toward Trump. As one post-election study by Hart Research found, without this cratering of support from white working-class moderates Hillary Clinton almost certainly would have won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, and with them the presidency.
As a matter of electoral geography, we cannot win the political power needed to advance a progressive agenda without a substantial share of white working-class moderates. Yet for years, Democrats have failed to have a presence in the small cities, towns and rural areas where so many of these voters live. As political scientist Theda Skocpol notes, “Effective political organization in America is always centered in and across the states … [and] only people on the ground can network and engage in respectful two-way conversations.”
While organizing white working-class voters is critical, it is especially important in the Trump Era to invest in and empower communities of color. Organizers in these communities already receive far too few resources and attention. And with Donald Trump’s harshest rhetoric reserved for people of color, immigrants, Muslims and other vulnerable groups, progressive funders must step up their support for these communities. Only in that way will we unite people of all races, and across all geographies, around a progressive agenda.
How We Can Win Back the Battleground States Democrats Lost in 2016
This paper focuses on five key battleground states where Democrats must build multiracial coalitions to win — and where winning back white working-class moderates will be critical. In all five states — Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — we take a detailed look at the reality of working people’s lives to see why Democrats failed to move them in 2016 and what progressives can do differently moving forward.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton received 1 million fewer votes in these five states than Barack Obama in 2012. A relatively small share of the decline came in the big urban centers and suburbs where Democrats focused their efforts. The much larger drop in support came in smaller population centers like Lima, Ohio; Lancaster, Pa.; and Lumberton, N.C. — places where Democrats were often absent and Trump made the Republican advantage insurmountable.
The white working class in small-town and rural America is under severe stress. Mortality rates are rising, employment rates falling, and so Donald Trump’s apocalyptic message makes sense. A survey of election results found that Trump did best in two often overlapping types of communities: those with struggling economies and a large working class; and those with the highest drug, alcohol and suicide mortality rates. And because Democrats were absent in many of these struggling white working-class communities, they could not make the case that the last eight years offered an antidote to their problems.
Building on What Works to Rebuild Progressive Power
In 2016, Democrats lost the air war and neglected the long-term ground game. Donald Trump benefited from an overwhelming advantage in earned media. One study found broadcast and cable channels mentioned Trump twice as often as Clinton. But instead of countering Trump’s advantage on the airwaves with an early and intense ground game, Democrats and the Clinton campaign allocated the vast majority of money to TV and digital advertising and squeezed the bulk of field engagement into the last few months of the election cycle. That approach is insufficient and must change. Working America believes Democrats must make a dramatic break with the way they’ve been reaching, or not reaching, potential voters:
- We have to reach these voters face to face, both to build trust and change the way economic stresses are being interpreted. Our experience has taught us what is and is not effective with these voters, and how to move them to a progressive perspective.
- We must build direct communication channels with targeted voters that can compete with the right-wing megaphone. Working America’s member communications program has moved voters on issues and in races that fly under the radar of most media. When deployed strategically, digital member communications offer rapid, targeted outreach to specific voters at an extremely low cost with effective results.
- We must rigorously measure everything we do, expanding what is successful and refining our efforts when we fail. Continuously measuring the impact of our organizing and communications work ensures that we are moving the voters we target.
- We must create community for disaffected voters as the Right has effectively done for years. Institutions, which provide good information and can mobilize those with a community of interest, can be found among people of color, immigrants and other parts of the progressive coalition but have atrophied within the white working class with the decline of labor unions. We need to fill this void with trusted messengers and local activism on scale. As historian Michael Kazin argues, “Institutions matter,” and we must rebuild them in the places where they’ve declined so that people have a place to “learn about politics and discuss ways to tilt the world in a progressive direction.”
After 2016, repeating the strategies and tactics of the past will no longer do. We must reach out to all the potential voters that can make up a strong multiracial progressive coalition. Working together, we can bridge the divide that’s been separating America’s working-class communities.