Democrats lost many of their working class supporters in the recent election to a populist campaign by Donald Trump, and now the question has turned to how the party traditionally known for blue-collar support can win back these voters.
Republicans were able to secure the presidency during the Nov. 8 election while also maintaining congressional control. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton lost several states that had been blue in previous election cycles. Republican president-elect Donald Trump was able to win working class districts in those states.
“I think Democrats are going to have to reach out, particularly to those voters, even though they are a much smaller size of the electorate,” American Enterprise Institute scholar Karlyn Bowman told InsideSources. “Clinton had clearly lost a lot of those voters, many of whom had voted for Barack Obama twice, particularly in the industrial Midwest.”
Bowman adds Democrats didn’t even bother putting much effort in strongholds like Wisconsin. Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa all moved to the right this election. Democrats will likely have to readdress their messaging and leadership if they hope to win the working class districts in those states back.
“The people who are the leaders of the party are no longer coming from these places,” Trinity College Prof. Kevin McMahon told InsideSources. “[They need] both new leadership and new leadership that is representative of the diversity of America and not just diversity in terms of race, ethnicity and gender but in terms of geography.”
McMahon adds the Democratic Party has essentially become the party of big cities. Working class voters might have also been concerned with how some Democratic policies have impacted the economy. The Affordable Care Act, for instance, has received a lot of criticism because of its impact on job creation and the price of health insurance.
“Voters on election day said they thought the Obamacare act had gone too far but at the same time they don’t want to repeal it,” Bowman said. “I think in many of those communities that lost a lot of jobs people were particularly sensitive to the effect a very substantial new government program will have on job creation.”
Michigan State University Prof. William Allen adds the issue isn’t necessarily the policies in itself but how the party addresses the concerns. He notes voters want to see that politicians care and are trying to fix the problems. Democrats seemed to almost ignore when their agenda negatively impacted the working class.
“Democrats have to deal with the reality that Obamacare had some pernicious consequences,” Allen told InsideSources. “They need to accept that, accept responsibility for that and participate in correcting them.”
Democrats have also had a particular focus on identity politics like race and gender. Their most recent party platform further instilled that sentiment. The message helped to bring in more progressive support but it may have also alienated white working class voters who felt they were being blamed for inequality.
“I think particularly the emphasis on identity politics and specific groups was an issue,” Bowman said. “Many working class Americans feel marginalized so I think they should do less of that going forward.”
Allen adds many in the white working class likely felt betrayed by President Barack Obama because of his focus on race. They may have hoped his candidacy would be a chance to move beyond racial politics but felt that never happened.
“You can pretty much embrace the platform of the Democratic Party if you stripped from it the specific content that focuses on race,” Allen said. “You can have general policies of a social safety net addressed to the country and not addressed to people based on their differences.”
McMahon notes identity politics can be part of the message but it can’t be the main focus. Younger and more progressively-minded voters care a lot about those issues and want to see politicians address them. The challenge for party leadership may be finding a balance between the two constituencies.
“Any coalition you put together you’re going to want to deal with the leading concerns of subgroups within the coalition,” McMahon said. “They need to craft a message where some of those issues are part of the discussion but they don’t seem like they’re dictating the message.”
Bowman notes its possible for the left to build a bridge between socially-minded progressives and traditional working class voters. Democrats should be more deliberate in discussing issues that concern the working class even if they don’t appeal to other constituencies.
“That’s obviously the clear goal and that’s what they’ll try and have to do particularly if the white working class continues to be a substantial share of the electorate,” Bowman said. “Trade may not be as great a concern for millennials and urban areas overall but I think they need to continue to talk about that.”
Clinton might have also been the wrong candidate to address the unrest among workers. Trump built his campaign on an economic populist message that blamed the political establishment for working class struggles. Clinton, in many regards, was the very symbol of the establishment.
“I think there was something about her candidacy,” Bowman said. “Perhaps it was the big dollar speeches, perhaps it was her ties to Wall Street, perhaps it was that she had been in government for so long, and people felt distant from her overall.”
Washington and Lee University Prof. Mark Rush notes the election and populist sentiment underscores a bigger issue. He adds many in the working class have clearly rejected what is perceived as a globalist economic agenda. Trump was much more critical of policies like immigration and trade because of their impact on domestic workers.
“It was a rejection of the Democratic presidential candidate in regard to what could be perceived as too strong a swing towards globalization at this point,” Rush told InsideSources. “So the Republicans have a nice shot but if the Republicans don’t address this either then I can’t predict honestly what’s going to happen in four years.”
Rush adds politicians don’t necessarily have to reject globalization but they should make sure it’s not hurting workers. He says it’s an issue that both parties have to address and find a balance. Bowman notes it may also be helpful for the Democrats to find areas of compromise where they can.
“They can try to find areas of compromise so they can work together on both of those issues because Obamacare and immigration are very hot button issues, as is trade,” Bowman said. “Democrats can continue talking about those issues and negotiating trade agreements that are truly fair and I think that will be important going forward.”
Republicans now have the burden of responsibility to prove their economic agenda will help workers. Trump also faces an uphill battle since his win came from the electoral college and not the popular vote. His success may come down to whether he can turn his economic message into real results for workers across the country.