The growing diploma divide stands as one of the most striking developments of the past few years. As recently as when the Clintons lived in the White House, Republicans held a solid advantage among college-educated voters. Now, Democrats hold the advantage among them by that same margin.
Meanwhile, we’ve seen the exact opposite partisan shift among voters without a college degree, and we’re not just talking here about the oft-mentioned white working-class voter. Given the reality that “about 60 percent of U.S. voters do not have a four-year college degree, and they live disproportionately in swing states,” Democrats can't ignore this problem—at least not if they want to, you know, win the White House and save American democracy.
So what can President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Democrats up and down the ticket next year do to win over enough of the multiracial working-class vote—tens of millions Americans worried about finding affordable housing and paying their bills every month, often living paycheck to paycheck—to win reelection? Newly released research holds some promising answers. The good news is that the Biden-Harris team appears thus far to be pursuing the right strategy to a good degree, including with a new ad blitz aimed at countering the attention focused on the Trumpless GOP debate—namely highlighting the benefits of Bidenomics specifically to middle- and working-class voters.
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Thanks to recently released data from Catalist, we can compare 2012 and 2020—years in which both the Democratic presidential candidate and congressional Democrats overall received almost identical shares of the vote, making this a good apples-to-apples comparison that reveals the depth of the aforementioned voter shift. The Democratic margin with non-college-educated voters of color declined by 19 percentage points from ’12 to ‘20. Nineteen. Among white noncollege voters, it dropped by 6 points.
Digging into individual racial groups, there was no significant educational divide on their support for Democrats among Black and Asian American and Pacific Islander voters. However, we did see one among Latino voters, where there was a much smaller decline in the Democratic margin among those with a college degree than without.
Alternatively, the Democratic margin with white college-educated voters jumped from '12 to '20 by a robust 17 points. Since their overall two-party vote share was almost identical, this means Team Blue’s gains with this group were essentially canceled out by losses overall among the rest of the American voting population. As for gender, there was little difference in the Democratic vote share among women (or men) between ‘12 and ‘20. The primary change was that Democratic voters became much whiter and wealthier.
Here’s one other data point that exemplifies this change: Between 2014 and 2020, Republicans increased their party-identification margins among construction workers by 16 points, while Democrats increased theirs among finance and insurance professionals by 12 points. Chew on that for a minute.
What can Democrats do about the fact that they are doing better among white college-educated voters, yet worse among white and Latino noncollege voters as well as Black voters overall?
A good place to start would be to address the concerns of noncollege, working-class voters. In other words, if white college-educated voters—who already vote at very high levels and are well-informed overall about the stakes of an election—are the only group that responds well to an issue, maybe emphasize other issues. Doing so doesn’t mean such issues aren’t important, or that Democrats shouldn’t act on them when they have the power to do so. It just means it’s not a smart electoral strategy to build a campaign solely around them.
One set of specific data-driven suggestions comes from this recent report from Jacobin, YouGov, and the Center for Working-Class Politics. Based on extensive surveys, it argues that “economic populism can help progressives win more working-class voters.” The report defines economic populism as language that “name[s] economic or political elites as a major cause of the country’s problems and cal[s]l on working Americans to oppose them.”
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Some key takeaways include:
Candidates who use class-based populist messaging are particularly popular with the blue-collar workers Democrats need to win in many “purple” states.
Rural voters across the political spectrum support key elements of left-wing populism.
Class matters. Working-class voters respond differently to Democratic candidates, messages, and policies than other voters.
These class-based preferences persist within racial and ethnic groups.
From the text of the report itself, which is over 100 pages long, this section provides some meaty specifics:
Working-class respondents, especially manual workers, favor candidates who pit “Americans who work for a living” against “corrupt millionaires” and “super-rich elites,” while other occupational groups exhibit no discernible distaste for them. On the whole, this suggests that populist rhetoric may help attract key working-class voters who Democrats currently struggle to win—manual workers—without serving as a liability or turnoff for the majority of the middle class.
Talk about threading a needle. Rhetoric that appeals to working-class voters but doesn’t turn off other voters? Yes, please. One other important point from the report is that for working-class Democrats, “racially inclusive” rhetoric garners significant support.
You might be asking, with Republicans having been hyper-focused on issues of race, gender identity, and culture wars more broadly (although their focus may finally be moving away from these somewhat)—and very much NOT economics, how does that affect what noncollege voters want to hear? The thing is, the party of Fuck a l’Orange has had that hyper-focus for some time now, so it is baked into this research, which was conducted only a couple of months ago. For whatever reason, and in spite of what the Trumpists have been screaming about, economic populism is what noncollege voters want to hear from Team Blue now.
Having said that, there’s one important addition I want to make to the report’s point about racially inclusive rhetoric. Research done by Berkeley Law Professor Ian Haney López, which I’ve written about previously, has made clear that Democrats can’t talk about “class and not race,” but instead, they have to emphasize that Republicans’ use racism—for example, screaming about critical race theory being taught in K-12 schools (which it isn’t)—to distract and divide white working-class voters from their nonwhite working-class compatriots. López calls this the race-class approach. Incorporating this concept into an economic populist message is the strongest possible campaign strategy. (We saw elements of this recently in V.P. Harris’s powerful response to Florida’s ridiculous revisionist curriculum regarding the history of slavery, although the connection needs to be made more explicitly.)
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Speaking of the campaign, top Democrats have rightly been focusing on the kinds of economic issues that, as per the aforementioned report, working-class voters want to hear about. With good reason, the White House has been crowing about the positive impact of "Bidenomics” on people's wallets and daily lives.They’ve been emphasizing the president’s significant legislative accomplishments, including, per The New Yorker’s John Cassidy, “the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the CHIPS and Science Act, and elements of the Inflation Reduction Act, which allowed Medicare to negotiate drug prices and provided subsidies for clean energy.”
As a Brookings Institution report highlighted, “One of the most auspicious aspects of the Biden administration’s surge in industrial policy legislation is the possibility of creating thousands of new, accessible, and tech-related blue-collar and ’new-collar’ jobs for people without college degrees.” Biden has hammered this theme repeatedly when talking his infrastructure law—for example, its increased support for apprenticeships. “Let’s offer every American a path to a good career whether they go to college or not,” he said in May. Rice University presidential historian Douglas Brinkley summed it up thusly: “Biden is the first president that’s reducing the need to get a college degree since World War II.”
On a similar note, Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s first act in office was to formally open 92% of all state government jobs to those who don’t have a college degree. Enacting these kinds of federal and state policies are key to gaining more support for Biden and Democrats among noncollege voters.
Although I haven’t seen the Biden team cite the report, their pushing of Bidenomics serves as evidence that they recognize the importance of what Democratic strategist Meredith Kelly called “the real kitchen-table issues impacting families.” The White House’s rhetoric, while maybe not as strident as the working-class voter report would like to see, certainly qualifies as economic populism.
Right from the start of his presidency, we’ve seen this in how Biden talks about taxes, as he did in May 2021 when discussing his proposed American Families Plan: “I think it’s about time we start giving tax breaks and tax credits to working-class families and middle-class families instead of just the very wealthy.” He argued that these funds be paired with tax increases that would “mak[e] sure corporate America and the wealthiest 1 percent just pay their fair share.”
Biden summed up his economic approach as follows: “The choice is about who the economy serves. And so, I plan on giving tax breaks to the working-class folks and making everybody pay their fair share.” The “fair share” line is one the president has returned to countless times. On June 27, per the Associated Press:
President Joe Biden delivered an unapologetically economic populist message Saturday during the first rally of his reelection campaign, telling an exuberant crowd of union members that his policies had created jobs and lifted the middle class. Now, he said, is the time for the wealthy to “pay their fair share” in taxes.
Biden spotlighted the sweeping climate, tax and health care package signed into law last year that cut the cost of prescription drugs and lowered insurance premiums— pocketbook issues that advisers say will be the centerpiece of his argument for a second term.
The next day, a White House memo defined Bidenomics as being “rooted in the simple idea that we need to grow the economy from the middle out and the bottom up—not the top down. An economy where we build more in America, empower and invest in American workers, and promote competition to lower costs for working families. Implementing that economic vision and plan—and decisively turning the page on the era of trickle-down economics—has been the defining project of the Biden presidency.” The Biden campaign gets it on the need for economic populism.
On July 6, Biden went into detail about his economic record. He spoke of “Bidenomics in action,” citing the fact that wages for the lowest-paid workers have increased faster than at any point in 20 years, and that his presidency has seen “historic” levels of “private investment in American manufacturing.” (NOTE: Data released on Aug. 1 showed that “spending on manufacturing facilities” jumped 80% compared with a year ago. There are now more Americans working in the manufacturing sector than at any time since George W. Bush was president.) Also, as per the White House, “0.4 percentage point of real Q2 GDP growth came from investment in private manufactured structures, the largest such contribution since 1981.”
On other occasions, we’ve heard Biden state: “[M]aybe it’s because I come from a middle-class neighborhood, I’m sick and tired of ordinary people being fleeced.” Biden added “and the same thing is happening today.” He wants to make sure he never fails on that score. Unions agree, as the AFL-CIO and 17 other unions endorsed the Biden-Harris ticket in June. Apparently, his opponents agree too.
Beyond the rhetoric, the White House can also point to real data showing that, in fact, “Bidenomics is working”—even if, as The New Republic’s Timothy Noah pointed out, the business press “won’t say so.” The Bidenonmics jobs record represents a stunning success (especially compared with that of his disgraced predecessor), as this June 30 Department of Labor memo laid out.
Inflation in our country has been dropping fast from the peak that it reached a year ago. The inflation numbers from June show even more improvement, as inflation is now down to 3% annually. The July inflation data also indicates inflation is cooling.
U.S. inflation has recently been lower than that of any other G7 country, while economic growth has been the strongest. Bidenomics in action, indeed.
Furthermore, as the White House noted, “Real wages for the average American worker are now higher than they were before the pandemic, with lower wage workers seeing the largest gains.” (Note: This statistic accounts for inflation.) From July 2022 to July 2023, real wages jumped 1.3% for nonmanagement employees (and 1.1% overall). The July jobs report also showed further strong wage gains.
Overall economic growth has remained healthy, even with the Federal Reserve raising interest rates by 5.25% (up from 0.0%) just since March 2022. Check out the GDP data for the second quarter.
Add in the data released on July 28, and it’s looking more and more likely that the U.S. will achieve the elusive “soft landing”—where an overheated economy cools down without stalling completely. Along those lines, the Federal Reserve’s in-house economic gurus have adjusted their forecast. Unlike what they thought as recently as a few months ago, they now believe America will avoid a recession in 2023. How good is the economy right now? Well, the Atlanta Fed projects that the current quarter will have the strongest economic growth—5.8%—since 2021.
Economists are impressed, and they told The New York Times so. Who, pray tell, deserves credit for these positive economic developments? The short answer: Bidenomics.
Additionally, check out how much stronger the post-COVID recovery under Biden has been than the recovery after the 2008 crash. To a good degree, that first recovery was hampered by conservative austerity policies that Bidenomics has rightfully eschewed this time around.
It’s certainly understandable if some Democratic-leaning voters become upset if Biden and Democrats on the campaign trail continue to focus on “growing the middle class” and the economy more broadly, rather than on other important progressive issues. And certainly, Democrats won’t talk exclusively about economic issues, as reproductive rights will also remain central to the campaign. There are, however, sound strategic reasons for this economics-heavy approach—one that is more likely to result in the electoral victories necessary to achieve policy success on those very issues.
In the end, this emphasis on noncollege voters is warranted because that’s where Team Blue is bleeding votes. Economic populist language is warranted because that’s what those voters want to hear from Democrats—as Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman showed in the midterms last year, when he got more support than Democrats usually get from noncollege voters on the way to becoming the only candidate that year to flip a Senate seat. We are talking here about voters who are members of every racial and ethnic group on which we have voting data. But this is about more than just numbers.
If Democrats become the party mostly of well-educated, well-off people (whose policy priorities do not always mesh with those of lower-income folks), we won’t be listening to the voices of some of the most vulnerable Americans—nor will we be an inclusive party. In that scenario, it will be impossible to comprehensively fulfill our commitment to social justice.
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)