One path for Biden to lure blue-collar voters – find the economic villains: ‘You have to pick fights’ | US elections 2024

To the dismay of Democrats, blue-collar voters have lined up increasingly behind Donald Trump, but political experts say Joe Biden can still turn things around with that large and pivotal group by campaigning hard on “kitchen table” economic issues.

With just six months to go until the election, recent polls show that Trump has stronger support among blue-collar Americans than he did in 2020. But several political analysts told the Guardian that Biden can bring back enough of those voters to win if he hammers home the message that he is helping Americans on pocketbook issues – for instance, by canceling student debt and cutting insulin prices.

According to Celinda Lake, a pollster for the Democratic National Committee, Biden needs to talk more often and more effectively about how his policies mean “real benefits” for working families and how he’s battling on their behalf against “villains” like greedy pharmaceutical companies.

“We need to have a dramatic framing that we’re going to take on villains to make the economy work for you and your family,” said Lake, who did polling for Biden’s 2020 campaign. “The villains can be a lot of things – corporations that don’t pay any taxes or drug companies that make record profits while they gouge you on prices.”

Joe Biden addresses striking members of the United Auto Workers in Belleville, Michigan, last September. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Republicans have won over many voters by attacking Democrats on cultural issues, but Lake said Democrats can overcome that. “We need to recognize that the economic message beats the cultural war message,” she said, adding that the economic message should focus on specific examples of how Biden’s policies have helped workers and their families.

“We have to make sure the economic message isn’t focused on GDP and low unemployment rates and lower inflation, but on real benefits, things that people feel at the kitchen table,” Lake said. She talked of reduced prescription drug prices, limits on banks’ junk fees and increasing taxes on the wealthy so the nation can invest in things like making childcare more affordable.

Patrick Gaspard, president of the Center for American Progress, also stressed the importance of economic messaging. “Biden needs to speak more on the economy, but you shouldn’t do it in terms of spiking the ball, which we’ve done too much of. You need to pick some fights,” said Gaspard, who was executive director of the Democratic National Committee under Barack Obama. “You have to pick fights with greedy corporations. It’s good to say, ‘I lowered insulin to $35 a month, and I’m bringing down the cost of a dozen drugs.’ But also say, ‘Big pharma is suing to stop us, and Maga Republicans and Donald Trump are standing with them on that. The fight is on, and I’m fighting for you on this.’”

Several Democrats voiced concern about the party’s current messaging, arguing that the White House and the Biden campaign are too insular and in ways locked into an outdated vision – that if a president delivers good things to voters, like good-paying construction jobs created by the $1.2tn infrastructure package, and runs campaign ads about those things, that will win over many voters. One political consultant warned that many voters are uninformed, telling of a focus group where one woman was delighted that she would soon begin paying $35 a month for insulin, down from $350, but she had no idea that the Biden administration was largely responsible for that lower price.

Even if the Biden campaign runs ads to make that point, several political experts said, Americans are so cynical about candidates and their campaigns that those ads might do little persuading. “The level of cynicism is so high that for many people, anything that comes from politicians or elected officials doesn’t pass the smell test,” said Steve Rosenthal, a longtime political consultant.

Rosenthal said groups that blue-collar voters trust – labor unions, community groups and Facebook pages – need to step up to communicate important, election-related information, such as the fact that Biden played a major role in capping insulin costs.

Speaking about crucial battleground states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Michael Podhorzer, a former political director of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s main labor federation, said, “It rests on the people in those states, the unions in those states, the civic institutions in those states to make clear what the stakes of a Trump presidency will be – for instance, he’ll push to repeal the Affordable Care Act.”

Donald Trump speaks at Drake Enterprises in Clinton, Michigan, last September. Photograph: Matthew Hatcher/AFP/Getty Images

Podhorzer acknowledged that Biden is having problems with blue-collar voters even though, he said, “Biden has done more by a large margin than either President Clinton or Obama to appeal directly to working people – and not just symbolically by joining the UAW’s picket line.” In the 2020 election, 48% of voters without a college degree voted for Biden, while 50% supported Trump, according to exit polls, White voters without a college degree backed Trump over Biden 67% to 32%, while voters of color without a college degree supported Biden, 72% to 26%. All told, 59% of 2020 voters didn’t have a college degree. Biden won the overall election because his comfortable 55% to 43% margin among college graduates more than offset his narrow loss among non-college graduates.

Several Democratic consultants said that if the election were held today, Trump would win. A recent Wall Street Journal poll found that Trump was leading Biden by between one and six percentage points in six of the main battleground states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona and Nevada. A Fox News poll in April found Trump leading by three points in Michigan and six in Georgia but tied with Biden in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

“There’s an enormous amount of work that has to be done, and there’s a lot of room for movement,” Rosenthal said. “When the labor unions kick into gear and really start to communicate with their members, the numbers can change pretty dramatically.”

Lake added, “I don’t think it’s too late at all.”

Mike Lux, a political consultant who has worked on six presidential campaigns, helped write an influential report called Factory Towns that found that the Democratic presidential vote in the midwest declined most sharply in communities that suffered the steepest drops in factory and union jobs. Ever since Franklin Roosevelt was president, Lux said, blue-collar voters saw the Democrats as the party that would protect them, but many have drifted away, convinced that Democrats weren’t doing enough to protect them.

Many blue-collar voters remain angry at Bill Clinton for getting Congress to ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) and normalize trade relations with China – trade moves that caused many US factories to close. “Working folks expected Democrats to fight for them,” Lux said. “But folks feel like Democrats have forgotten about them. They don’t feel like Democrats are talking to them or caring about them. It’s true that Republicans don’t do anything to help them, but they show up and wave the flag and pound their chest and say, ‘Nobody cares about you, but we do.’”

Lux said many blue-collar voters were unhappy that presidents Clinton and Obama pushed the idea that everybody should go to college. “A feeling started to develop that working-class people weren’t as welcome in the Democratic party,” Lux said.

In his eyes, the 2007-2009 recession, largely caused by Wall Street, has also been a big problem for Democrats. “There was a feeling that Barack Obama bailed out Wall Street and did not do much to bail out regular workers,” Lux said. “That was a huge moment. It led to folks giving the finger to the establishment, and that helped elect Donald Trump in 2016.”

Coalminers wave signs as Donald Trump speaks during a rally in West Virginia on 5 May 2016. Photograph: Steve Helber/AP

Ruy Teixeira, a political scientist and co-author of the book Where Have All the Democrats Gone?, agreed with Lux. “Working-class people were counting on them [the Democrats]. They were the party that was on the side of the working class, and they felt betrayed.”

Teixeira said the free trade initiatives “showed that the Democrats were not worrying about deindustrialization, not worrying about what’s happened to the median voter in the middle of the country. The Democrats were increasingly responsive to Wall Street. So some folks decided to give the Republicans a try.”

Taking a position that has angered many progressives, Teixeira said the Democrats’ stance on “crime, race, gender and climate is a whole can of worms” that has turned off many blue-collar voters. He said the Democrats are obsessed with climate change in a way that alienates many blue-collar voters, who, he said, fear that the push for renewable energy will mean higher energy prices. Teixeira also said that Democratic concerns about transgender rights – a culture war focus of the Republicans – has turned off many blue-collar voters.

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“The Democrats have to orient themselves away from the median liberal, college- educated voter who they get a Soviet-style majority from and orient themselves toward the median working-class voter, not just white, but non-white voters,” Teixeira said. “It’s not easy to do. They have to turn the battleship around.”

Another reason blue-collar voters have turned away from Democrats is the decline in union membership – from 35% of all workers in the 1950s to 10% today. Rosenthal remembers going to a steelworkers’ union hall in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, several decades ago – it had 15 bowling lanes and a bar. “Around 30% of workers were in unions,” Rosenthal said. “Another 10% or 15% were in union households, and a lot of other workers drank at the bar or bowled there.” The steelworkers’ hall served as a community center where people received information from the union and there was robust support for Democrats. The new book Rust Belt Union Blues describes a transformed landscape where many union halls have closed and gun clubs have often replaced them as gathering places for the working class – and there, the ambience is pro-Trump.

Another factor contributing to the Democrats’ woes is that over half the nation’s local news stations are in the hands of Sinclair and other rightwing owners, said Lux. That often makes it harder for Biden and other Democrats to get their message across.

As a result, Lux said, Democrats have to work extra hard to get their message out – for instance, through community Facebook pages that explain that the new bridge in town is being built thanks to Biden or that the Biden administration has helped blue-collar Americans by extending overtime coverage to 4 million more workers and banning non-competes that cover 30 million workers.

“The Democrats have to lean into issues that mean a lot to working people,” Lux said. “We have to keep showing up in Ottumwa [a working-class town in Iowa] and keep showing up in Youngstown [a blue-collar Ohio town].”

The Biden administration often seems to communicate its economic agenda in dribs and drabs. One day it blocks two giant grocery chains from merging, saying the merger could push grocery prices higher. Another day it caps banks’ junk fees, and yet another day it boasts about the low unemployment rate.

Lake says the administration is going about this the wrong way. “They tend to start the message with their accomplishments,” she said. “They need to start the message with the overall narrative and then go to their accomplishments.”

Lake said Biden’s economic message wasn’t getting across effectively. “They need more repetition,” she said. “They need more volume. It’s really difficult to break through.”

Several political analysts said love it or hate it, Donald Trump – unlike Biden – has an unmistakable narrative: Make America great again. Too many immigrants are crossing the border. The elite and deep state are out to get you.

“In a war between good policies and good stories that speak to people’s identities and emotions, good stories are going to win,” said Deepak Bhargava, president of the JPB Foundation and former head of the Center for Community Change.

Gaspard said Biden had a good economic story to tell and agreed that he wasn’t telling it very effectively. “He needs to talk more and more about growing the economy by building out the middle class,” Gaspard said. “Talking about the amount of dollars going to a big social program does nothing to sway voters. You need to talk about how Donna is going to be able to afford insulin and Josh is going to be able to afford to send kids to daycare. Things that are relatable to people.”

He said it was important to point to villains and draw contrasts with the other side: “You need to say Trump will cut taxes on the wealthy and that will hurt the working class. You need to ramp up efforts to say Trump will raise prices and hurt working families with his 10% across-the-board tariffs. That will mean a $1,500 tax that’s passed on to all working families. That’s massive, and it makes it painstakingly clear that Trump isn’t concerned about workers.”

A supporter holds a sign at a Donald Trump rally in Charleston, West Virginia, on 21 August 2018. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Gaspard said that in his economic messaging, Biden needed to “recognize the insecurities that working folks – white, Black and brown – are feeling” whether about the cost of living or other matters. “Biden needs to call out General Mills and Kimberly-Clark for raising the price of cereal and diapers,” Gaspard said. “People like it when you’re fighting for them.”

Amid all the talk about wooing blue-collar voters, Lake said young voters were too often forgotten. She urged Biden to address their concerns. “They’re very hard-pressed economically,” she said. “We haven’t been talking enough about issues facing young voters. It’s not just student loans. They’re worried about how much jobs pay and for many of them, it’s impossible to buy a house.”

With his blue-collar support soft, Biden is looking to labor unions to help put him over the top in crucial swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania. Unfortunately for Biden, his lead over Trump in union households has slipped: from 56% to 40% in 2020 exit polls to 50% to 41% early this year, according to an NBC News Poll.

Rosenthal, who like Podhorzer used to be the AFL-CIO’s political director, said it was vital for unions to step up – and soon – emphasizing that they can make the crucial difference in battleground states where the victory margin can be just a few thousand votes. Rosenthal said the labor movement had a huge amount at stake, considering that Biden has been the most pro-union in memory – he has invited union organizers to the White House and appointed many pro-union officials to the National Labor Relations Board.

“If Biden loses, and if he loses because he didn’t win Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and if he doesn’t win those states because the union household vote isn’t where it should be, there will never be another Democratic candidate who will give a shit about the union movement,” Rosenthal said. “Why should they, if he can’t win in those critical states? There is way more at stake for the labor movement in this election than for the rest of the country.”

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