Let’s start by talking about what hasn’t changed. Latino and African American voters—no matter which economic class we are talking about—still prefer Democrats over Republicans in the polls we’re going to discuss here. But, of course, winning a majority of voters of color alone won’t do enough to deliver victory for Democrats in statewide or national races, and is only enough to win in a relatively small number of legislative districts. This is because white voters overall continue to prefer Republicans across the country—this is especially true in the South.
Washington state Sen. Emily Randall and RuralOrganizing.org's Matt Hildreth talk about what they're seeing and hearing while knocking on doors this week on Daily Kos’ The Brief podcast
To be clear, this post is not about blaming Black and brown voters for Republican success, or any group of voters defined by race or ethnicity for that matter. You know what group of voters is responsible for victories by the Party of Trump? The people who vote for the Party of Trump.
On to the data: Generally speaking, pollsters often use the highest degree earned as a proxy for socio-economic class when surveying voters, as Gallup explained here. (We can debate the merits of this, but it’s standard operating procedure.) Catalist, a progressive data analysis firm, gathered voter information by race and educational status, and has national voter data for every congressional election and presidential election going back to 2012.
For white, non-college voters, their votes for president remained roughly consistent at three to two in favor of Republicans over that period, although it’s worth noting that Joe Biden did slightly better among this group than did Hillary Clinton. White voters with a college degree, however, have swung hard toward the Democrats in presidential elections, shifting by 16 points. Looking at the national vote for congressional races, the white college vote showed an even more robust 21-point swing in terms of vote margin.
How about voters of color? Again, they voted overwhelmingly for Democrats, but we’re interested in the class breakdown and whether/how patterns changed over time. In 2012, 2014, and 2016, voters of color without a college degree supported Democrats by a few more points than did those with a degree. By 2020, however, this gap was gone in the presidential race, and was down to one point in the congressional. So, although Democrats lost a few points among college voters of color, their support among non-college voters of color dropped by even more.
As for the non-college vote for president itself, the Democratic vote fell by 20 points among Americans of color. For Congress, there was a less dramatic but still noticeable eight-point move in the Republicans’ direction. So, although we aren’t talking about a wholescale shift in these categories, we know that a few votes shifted in a few states could have made Hillary Clinton president, and, likewise, could have reelected Fuck a l’Orange. Democrats need to run up huge victories among these voters in order to win.
There’s some related data specifically on Latinos. The Pew Research Center found that in 2020, Trump did significantly better among Latino non-college voters—losing by only 14%—than college voters—whom he lost by a whopping 39%. Plus, according to political scientist and Center for American Progress (a progressive think tank) senior fellow Ruy Teixeira, data showed that far more non-college than college Hispanic voters shifted from the Democrats to the Republicans between 2018 and 2020. Teixeira also cited data from Nevada that showed Democrats losing quite a bit of ground at the presidential level between 2016 and 2020 among Hispanic as well as Black working-class voters. Additionally, he cited data forthcoming from States of Change (a project within the Center for American Progress) on Pennsylvania that showed similar weakness in 2020 for Democrats among non-college voters of color, especially among Latinos.
In sum, working-class voters of color supported Republicans in 2020 more than they had in the elections that immediately preceded it, with the trend being driven primarily, but not solely, by Latino voters. Unfortunately, polling suggests things have gotten worse on these fronts since The Man Who Lost An Election And Tried To Steal It, er, well, lost an election and tried to steal it. The really concerning thing is that the trend is now showing up among Black as well as Hispanic working-class voters.
Looking at recent data
Let’s look at recent data. The aforementioned Teixeira cites an unpublished Data for Progress poll asking about preferences in the upcoming midterms and the 2024 presidential race. Among Latinos, working-class/non-college voters’ support for a generic congressional Democrat comes in 11 points lower in terms of vote margin than among those with a degree. Among African Americans, the equivalent gap is larger, coming in at a jaw-dropping 31 points. On Biden vs. Trump, the vote margin gap is even more yawning than on the generic congressional question—17 points for Hispanic respondents and 34 points for Black respondents.
An April Franklin & Marshall poll done in the crucial state of Pennsylvania found that working-class voters of color approved of Biden’s job performance at roughly the same (dismal) percentage as did white working class voters. (The numbers weren’t broken down by educational status for voters of color, but since the white non-college approval rating was the same as the overall non-college job approval rating—around 25%—we know that approval rating has to be pretty similar for non-college voters of color, who make up around 20% of the Keystone State’s voters.)
On working class voters of color, there are some more up-to-date data (please note that it changes every day) that backs up what’s cited above, this from our own Civiqs polling. Biden's approval (while still relatively strong with voters of color) has dropped by a good amount overall. Net support (approval minus disapproval) has dropped 30 points among African American respondents, and by 40 points among Latinos from Inauguration Day through May 12. Most relevant here is that Biden’s approval rating has fallen even more with non-college respondents than those with degrees among both Black and Hispanic Americans.
On the day Biden took office, Civiqs found almost no gap in his job approval among Black respondents based on their educational status. However, one has grown gradually over the past sixteen months—with no apparent specific provocation. We now see a divide of 12 points on net approval. Among Latinos, the level of support drops a good bit when we move from those with a post-college degree, to a college degree, to no college degree. Plus, Hispanics without a college degree went from being the most supportive of Biden in terms of educational status to the least.
This class/educational status gap has existed for some time among white voters, but we didn’t see anything like this among Black and brown voters until very recently. So the question remains, why do non-college voters of color feel less positively toward Biden and the Democratic Party than those with a degree, and what does that suggest?
Before deciding what to do, we have to acknowledge that this data blows a hole in a particular argument about American politics, specifically about why people vote Republican. According to this argument, white working-class/non-college voters vote Republican because, essentially, they are racists. Its adherents too often dismiss any talk of additional concerns, and condemn those who cite economics or other issues that might influence the vote, as being in denial about white racism’s importance.
Now, however, it appears that Black, white, and Latino voters all show a noticeable gap between college and non-college voters when it comes to supporting Democrats. Yes, more whites vote Republican and more people of color vote Democratic, but the fact that the educational gap is similar across racial lines means something—namely that Democrats are underperforming among the voters of color and the white voters who derive the most direct economic benefit from progressive policies. These are the people helped most by, just to name a few examples, Obamacare, Medicare, and/or Medicaid, or, if you want something more recent, the American Rescue Plan passed last year without a single Republican vote—not that that stopped many of those shameless wonders from taking credit for its investments.
Racism undoubtedly is one factor driving the white Republican vote. Turning on the TV provides daily evidence of this, as we saw during the confirmation hearings for Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. But if it were the only factor causing people to vote for the Party of Trump, we wouldn’t see this educational gap across all three of the largest racial/ethnic groups. In particular, we wouldn’t see a large gap emerging among Black voters—who are obviously not fans of white supremacy and, likewise, are not engaging in the kind of anti-Blackness and colorism that is—as has been widely documented by, for example, Saraciea J. Fennell, Rachel Hatzipanagos, and Giselle Castro, among many others—unfortunately prevalent among some Hispanic Americans.
Something else is going on here, related to economic/educational status, and it’s not good for Democrats. We need to figure out what it is, and how to fix it. And while there’s been a good degree of ink spilled on this question when it comes to Latinos, the educational gap among Black voters has drawn far less attention thus far.
How to close the great divide
In one sense, this information reveals an opportunity for Democrats. Bringing support among working-class voters of color to the same level as that which exists among their counterparts with a college degree should be doable. The former suffer in every way from Trumpist policies that harm their health and their wealth, while allowing for all kinds of discrimination that harm their bodies and spirits. Democrats must be doing something that appeals more to African American and Hispanic voters with a degree than to those without one. But what should they do differently?
First, as Perry Bacon has argued, it’s not simply about being too “woke.” To take just one example, Democrats’ support for trans rights is not the problem—according to polling, even Republican voters don’t love the GOP’s stance on that issue. In broad terms, do I think some of Team Blue’s messaging could better reflect the concerns of working-class voters of color—say, the people who helped Eric Adams win the mayor’s race in New York City—than it currently does? Sure, but that’s far from the whole problem.
Interestingly, Ationza Smith—who co-founded the activist group Revolutionaries Demanding Justice and who supports Biden—offered that, in her experience, the few African Americans who backed Trump in 2020 “like how he’s improved employment ... they’re kind of basically looking at things on a business level and not necessarily an ethics level.” On a similar note, Kevin Jones, who serves as first vice chair of the Nash County (NC) Democratic Party, argued that Trump’s focus on economic opportunity and providing African Americans what they need to advance economically was very attractive because “nobody believes in bootstrapping more than Black people in the South.”
Here’s what a couple of Hispanic Trump 2020 voters have to say: Mateo Mokarzel cited Trump’s “anti-globalisation policy … Trump came in saying—'hey, we're going to tear apart these trade deals'—and then he actually did it. That was for me the first sign that he actually meant some of the things he was saying.” Lily Mokarzel, who is married to Mateo, spoke about the increase in her salary over the previous four years, adding “since Trump has been in office our lives have improved.” Other voters expressed that they came out for Trump because of his position on abortion and religion in general.
From what we’re seeing in Georgia, Stacey Abrams thinks voters are going to respond more positively to a campaign focused on local and bread-and-butter issues—i.e., one more about Medicaid expansion in Georgia and less about voting rights, according to this New York Times analysis. We’ll see how that works, and whether she changes her approach at any point.
One thing Democrats have to do, as I’ve argued previously, is explain to voters that Republicans use fearmongering about race so that they don’t have to talk about their economic policies—which even they should know hold little appeal to middle- and working-class voters, or independents, or, just about anyone.
For example, when was the last time you heard a Trumper brag about the Rich Man’s Tax Cut, even though it was by far the most significant legislation passed during the former guy’s time in the White House? The kind of race-class fusion message I mentioned above, promulgated by Berkeley Law Professor Ian Haney López, must be part of the solution. Way to Win, a progressive outfit headed by Jenifer Fernandez Ancona and Kristian Ramos, has tested some similar ideas with an eye toward the midterms and found that a particular message resonated strongly, namely one that emphasized Democratic “ideas and values” as well as:
Inoculates against the GOP attacks by calling them out for their obstruction, extremism, and racial division and explaining why they are doing all of it – for their corporate backers, at the expense of the rest of us … and leans into the power of cross-racial solidarity to do big things, including naming all the parts of our winning coalition – white, Black, Latino and Asian American voters.
Voto Latino, the preeminent Latino voter organization, likewise conducted a large survey in February and found “financial insecurity leads as the top stressor among Latino voters, especially those under the age of 40. COVID-19 concerns were often cited in the context of their economic impact.” Maria Teresa Kumar, Voto Latino’s president and CEO, added: “After two years of COVID, the worries about the disease are intertwined with broader economic and kitchen-table issues faced by our communities. Latinos are actively looking to their elected officials to take actions that will make a real difference in their lives.”
Additionally, we know that Biden’s economic policy proposals are quite popular—it’s just that not enough people have heard about them. It doesn’t help that Republicans plus Sens. Manchin and/or Sinema are stopping him from passing them. There are no easy answers here.
There are no easy answers
What else do working-class voters who are gettable for Democrats have to say on the specific question of how progressives can win their votes? After conducting a survey specifically of these voters (those surveyed did not have a four-year college degree, and did not identify as Republicans), Jacobin, YouGov, and the Center for Working-Class Politics presented the answers these voters provided:
- Focus on “bread-and-butter economic issues (jobs, health care, the economy)” framed in “plainspoken, universal terms.” This was especially important in rural/small-town regions.
- Specifically name “elites as a major cause of America’s problems” and “celebrate the working class.”
- Don’t “surrender questions of social justice to win working-class voters,” but refrain from using “highly specialized, identity-focused language” to express those positions. The full report gave examples of these kinds of terms, as tested in the survey: “systemic injustice,” “cultural appropriation,” “equity,” “Latinx,” and “BIPOC.” This language garnered less support than other Democratic messages. This disparity in terms of support was especially acute among blue-collar as opposed to white-collar working-class voters.
The authors added that working-class voters also responded much more positively overall to working-class candidates than wealthier ones, whereas a candidate’s race and gender were not a factor. Finally, the surveys indicated that few “low-propensity voters” decide to not vote because candidates aren’t progressive enough.
No one is saying that poring over polling data is likely to lead to some strategic breakthrough and shift lots of races by ten or more points, turning certain losers into sure winners in every part of the country. But the growing gap based on educational status among Black and Latino voters in terms of support for Democrats represents a real change from what we’ve seen in recent years.
Maybe altering the messaging—along with other crucial steps like remaining consistently engaged with marginalized communities, not just in election season—to address this gap will help campaigns pick up a point, or two, or three overall in this fall’s races. And maybe that would be enough to move a dozen—hey, we’ll take even a handful—of House races from the red column to the blue. Or to flip the result of U.S. Senate races in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia, Wisconsin, or Nevada. Turning even a small number of losses into victories could make the difference in control of one or both houses of Congress. The same goes for state legislatures and races for governor.
We can’t fix what ails America, and we can’t build further on what’s right with America, if we can’t win enough elections to govern America. Just as importantly, we can’t stop the other side from making things worse in places like Georgia if we don’t win at least a measure of power there, and put a terrific Democrat like Stacey Abrams in the governor’s mansion, placing the veto pen in her hand.
Democratic campaigns have to maximize their chances in every election. That means using whatever information is at their disposal to craft the most effective messages possible that remain consistent with our core values. The information presented here makes clear that working-class voters of all different races—the people whose material fortunes would gain the most by Democratic victories—aren’t as excited about Team Blue as one might expect. The question is: what are we going to do about it?
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)
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