As both candidate and president, Biden has devoted enormous effort to regaining ground with working-class voters, particularly the White voters without college degrees who have drifted away from the Democrats since the 1970s.
But in the campaign, he improved on Hillary Clinton’s anemic 2016 performance with those voters only modestly. And in office, an array of recent polls show he’s failed to increase his approval rating with those non-college-educated White voters much, if at all, beyond the roughly one-third of them who he attracted last November — even though he’s aimed much of his rhetoric and presidential travel at them and formulated an agenda that would shower them with new government benefits.
Biden’s small gains with these voters last fall still helped him tip the critical Rust Belt battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, and many Democrats say that any progress with them will be critical to the party’s electoral fortunes in 2022 and 2024.
“The key is you have a president who is speaking to them and fighting for them, non-college-educated voters of all races,” says John Anzalone, who served as a lead pollster for Biden during the campaign. “I think he has their attention, and that’s what is really important for the future, whether the 2022 election or 2024.”
But the continuing resistance confronting even Biden — a 78-year-old White Catholic who highlights his working-class roots at every turn — underscores the challenge an increasingly diverse and culturally liberal Democratic Party will face in recovering as much support as it attracted from these voters as recently as in Barack Obama’s two campaigns.
It may be too strong to say Biden represents the Democrats’ last chance to restore their competitiveness with working-class White voters. But it seems likely that if he can’t do so, there are few others in the Democrats’ next generation of emerging leaders who have a better chance.
“I don’t see people on the horizon” who could do better for Democrats, says David Kochel, a Republican consultant based in Iowa, one of the heartland states where the rightward shift of working-class Whites, especially those in rural and exurban communities, has decisively tipped the partisan balance toward the GOP.
Losing blue-collar Whites
Working-class White voters constituted the bedrock of the Democratic coalition from the 1930s to the 1960s but the party has lost ground among them, largely because of issues relating to race and culture, in the half century since. For almost as long, the party has debated how much emphasis to place on recapturing those voters.
This long-running argument has functioned as a proxy for the larger question of whether Democrats should tack toward the center or move left, particularly on social issues. 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.
Each side can point to relevant demographic trends for its case. Whites without college degrees have steadily declined as a share of all voters by about 2 to 3 percentage points over each four-year presidential term for decades, while Whites with college degrees and especially non-White voters have expanded in turn. (Although those non-college Whites remain the biggest bloc in the electorate, they fell below 40% of the national total for the first time last fall, according to Census Bureau figures.) As both their overall numbers and support for Democrats have declined, these non-college Whites have fallen by half, from nearly 60% of self-identified Democrats in 1996 to only 30% now, according to analysis by the Pew Research Center. (They remain about three-fifths of all Republicans, Pew found.)
On the other hand, blue-collar Whites remain overrepresented as a share of voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — the three Rust Belt states that will remain pivotal to Democrats’ White House hopes until they can more reliably win the Sun Belt battlegrounds.
Biden’s presidency stands as a potential hinge in this extended debate: If even he can’t significantly improve the party’s position with these voters, it will likely embolden those who want the party to shift its emphasis from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt; from recovering working-class Whites to mobilizing its emerging coalition of younger voters of color as well as college-educated Whites.
“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.”
Targeting working-class wallets
It’s difficult to overstate how much Biden has targeted working-class voters, especially White working-class voters, during his presidency. As a recent CNN analysis found, his presidential travel has focused heavily on blue-collar communities, with Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio topping the list of states he has visited. And blue-collar White voters clearly have influenced one of the White House’s defining political strategies: to generally limit Biden’s personal engagement with hot-button cultural issues (from gun control to voting rights) and to overwhelmingly focus his public appearances on kitchen table concerns: shots in the arm, checks in the pocket, shovels in the ground.
Biden routinely calls his economic agenda a “blue-collar blueprint to build America” and his proposals would shower working-class voters of all races with a wide array of new government benefits. The $1.9 trillion stimulus plan included direct $1,400 payments and a vastly expanded tax credit for families with children that benefited almost all voters without a college education. The bipartisan infrastructure plan expected to receive Senate approval Tuesday is centered on blue-collar jobs rebuilding roads, bridges and water systems. The follow-on $3.5 trillion human capital budget bill Democrats plan to advance this week offers working-class families increased subsidies for health insurance and child care, guaranteed paid family leave, expanded Medicare benefits and, for their children, access to universal preschool and two years of free community college. Some experts have described the cumulative package as the largest expansion of direct government assistance to working families since Social Security during the New Deal.
But so far, Biden has very little to show for it in terms of improved approval among White working-class voters. In the latest Gallup Poll for July, his approval rating among Whites without college degrees stood at 34%; he’s exceeded 38% among them in only one of Gallup’s monthly surveys. Surveys released over the last few weeks by Monmouth and Quinnipiac universities, as well as an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, likewise put his approval with those voters at just 32-34%. (Another Marist poll showed him at 37%.) In each case, his approval rating among those non-college-educated White voters was about 20 percentage points less than his standing among White voters with college degrees.
With approval from roughly one-third of working-class Whites, Biden’s support now remains essentially unchanged from his vote among them last November: The major data sources (including the network exit polls conducted by Edison Research, the academic Cooperative Election Study and the Pew Research Center’s validated voters study) all showed him winning almost exactly one-third of them. In each case, that was only slightly better than Clinton’s performance in 2016, when most of the data sources showed her winning just under 3 in 10 of those voters. Biden’s performance also remained well below the roughly 40% of these voters that Democrats won in each presidential race from 1988 to 2008, according to the exit polls.
Previously unpublished details on the 2020 results provided to me by each of those sources offer a more nuanced picture of Biden’s performance. Democratic analysts who believe the party must continue emphasizing blue-collar White voters often argue that the Democrats’ weakness with them is exaggerated by the large number of culturally conservative evangelical Christians in their ranks. And indeed, the previously unpublished results provided to me from the exit polls, the Cooperative Election Study and Pew all show that Biden lost non-college-educated White voters who identify as evangelical Christians by an even larger margin than Clinton did: All three of those sources showed Donald Trump winning about 85% or more of those voters, up from around 80% in 2016. Trump’s support among White non-college evangelicals reached about 90% in Southern states such as Georgia, Texas and North Carolina, according to the exit polls.
By contrast, each of those three studies showed Biden improving over Clinton among the non-college White voters who are not evangelical Christians. Even so, all three studies still showed him losing those non-evangelical blue-collar Whites to Trump and winning only 42% to 47% of them. Comparing each study with its own 2016 results, only in Pew’s did Biden significantly improve over Clinton’s performance with them.
How crucial are they for Democrats?
For many liberal analysts, the big takeaway in these results is that Biden has made such marginal gains with blue-collar Whites as a candidate and as President.
“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.”
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.”
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.
Anzalone, the Biden pollster, likewise says the picture may look different once families receive more of the tangible benefits Biden is promoting.
“There’s a lot of stuff … people won’t see for a long time,” Anzalone says. “The bottom line is this is a president who is committed to create opportunities for working families to succeed and be a bigger part of this economy. … This [political] conversation a year from now may be different. The fact is he’s competing for this demographic, and that’s important.”
The struggle ahead
Republicans, though, generally express confidence that their blue-collar barricade will hold against Biden’s strategy of emphasizing material benefits and downplaying cultural fights. The GOP approach has been less to directly attack Biden’s kitchen table agenda than to shift the subject toward hot-button, racially tinged issues that trigger the cultural conservatism of most White non-college voters, a list that includes crime, “critical race theory” and above all immigration. Given the potency of those cultural issues, “I’m not sure [Biden] can spend his way to a larger vote share there,” Kochel says.
Another headwind for Biden, he adds, is the rise in inflation, which Republicans are attributing to his expensive spending proposals. “Inflation and the overall cost of living is going to bite the non-college working class a heck of a lot more than it is the white-collar upscale college grads,” Kochel says. “There’s a lot of things working against him that he doesn’t have much control over.”
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center who studies blue-collar voters, is also dubious that Biden can regain much ground.
“I think Biden’s doing what he can, but these voters lean right on culture and immigration: He’s leaning left on those issues and that holds him back,” Olsen told me in an email. “I don’t think the modern Democratic Party, with its vocal cultural left, can win 40% of non-college whites [again] absent a big GOP misstep.”
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.
Biden has taken some steps in that direction, particularly in publicly rejecting calls to “defund the police.” But in a coalition that is far less dependent on working-class Whites than it was in Bill Clinton’s era — and far more reliant on people of color and well-educated White social liberals — Biden simply cannot move as aggressively as Clinton did to signal sympathy for the culturally conservative views that bind so many blue-collar voters to the GOP.
And that means the ceiling on Biden’s potential recovery with blue-collar White voters, whatever economic agenda he passes, is probably lower than he hopes, though not necessarily lower than it takes to improve his position in some closely contested states. “People think” the effort to gain the electoral high ground for 2022 and 2024 “is going to happen through one swift katana move,” says McElwee, referring to the sleek Japanese sword favored by samurai, “when in fact it’s a really brutal game of inches.”