Earlier this year, Jacobin collaborated with YouGov to survey working-class voting behavior in the United States. The work was done in conjunction with the newly formed Center for Working-Class Politics.
In the last five years, a rejuvenated progressive left has established itself as a potent force in American politics. Inspired by Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential run, progressive Democratic challengers have mobilized donors and volunteers around a boldly egalitarian economic platform, winning an impressive array of local, state, and congressional races. The relative electoral success of this new left is one of the major political stories of our moment.
And yet, for the most part, these progressive triumphs have been concentrated in well-educated, relatively high-income, and heavily Democratic districts. Even when progressives have won primaries in working-class areas, they have generally done so without increasing total turnout or winning over new working-class voters. And in races outside the friendly terrain of the blue-state metropolis, the same progressive candidates have largely struggled. Overall, progressives have not yet made good on one key promise of their campaigns: to transform and expand the electorate itself.
This poses a major challenge to any hope for a national political realignment on progressive terms. Recent events suggest that left-wing candidates may continue to replace moderate Democrats in demographically favorable urban districts, which could lead to more progressive policies at the municipal or state level. But the national picture is less promising. There are simply not enough districts of this kind to win control of the US House of Representatives, never mind the Senate. For the kind of majority necessary to pass Medicare for All or any of the other big-ticket items on the social democratic agenda, progressive candidates will need to win in a far wider range of places. Until they do, their political leverage will remain sharply limited at the local, state, and national levels.
Why Progressives Need the Working Class
It’s our founding assumption that progressives can only expand their appeal — and achieve their political aims — by winning a larger share of support from working-class voters. Two key realities support this point of view.
First, the working class makes up by far the largest share of the American electorate. In 2020, 63% of voters did not have college degrees, and 74% of voters came from households making less than $100,000 a year. In the wake of the New Deal, these relatively less educated, lower-income voters became loyal Democrats. But since the 1970s, and more rapidly in the last decade, the working class has drifted away from the Democratic Party. Looking to the future, it is difficult to imagine a victorious progressive coalition that does not reverse this trend and ultimately incorporate a much larger share of working-class voters.
Second, the working class has a special relationship to progressive policy: it stands to benefit most from the egalitarian and redistributive reforms that anchor left-wing politics. Historically, the greatest triumphs of American progressives in the twentieth century — from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement and the Great Society — were achieved only with a sturdy base of working-class support. The same is true for social democratic achievements abroad. A progressive politics that does not expand its strength with working-class voters today risks cutting itself loose from the central force that has propelled egalitarian reforms throughout the world.
This is not a simple problem with a clear solution; in fact, the trends have run in the opposite direction for nearly half a century. It is a problem that calls for focused study.
Specifically, our work asks three basic questions:
- How can progressives win in working-class America?
- How can progressives more effectively engage low-propensity working-class voters across lines of race and geography, especially outside large cities?
- What are the electoral advantages and disadvantages of various kinds of progressive platforms and messaging? Can different progressive messages work in different areas?
Our experimental study, the first of its kind, offers a new and powerful perspective on working-class political views. In collaboration with the public opinion firm YouGov, we designed a survey to test how working-class voters respond to head-to-head electoral matchups. By asking voters to choose directly between thousands of hypothetical candidates — rather than isolated policies or slogans — we can develop a richer, more realistic portrait of voter attitudes than conventional polls can provide. And by presenting this survey to a representative group of two thousand working-class voters in five key swing states — a much larger sample of this demographic than appears in most polls — we are able to focus on these voters in much greater depth.
The key takeaways of our survey, listed briefly below and discussed in greater detail in the full report, can inform future progressive campaigns.
Some of Our Takeaways
Working-class voters prefer progressive candidates who focus primarily on bread-and-butter economic issues, and who frame those issues in universal terms. This is especially true outside deep-blue parts of the country. Candidates who prioritized bread-and-butter issues (jobs, health care, the economy), and presented them in plainspoken, universalist rhetoric, performed significantly better than those who had other priorities or used other language. This general pattern was even more dramatic in rural and small-town areas, where Democrats have struggled in recent years.
Populist, class-based progressive campaign messaging appeals to working-class voters at least as well as mainstream Democratic messaging. Candidates who named elites as a major cause of America’s problems, invoked anger at the status quo, and celebrated the working class were well received among working-class voters — even when tested against more moderate strains of Democratic rhetoric.
Progressives do not need to surrender questions of social justice to win working-class voters, but certain identity-focused rhetoric is a liability. Potentially Democratic working-class voters did not shy away from progressive candidates or candidates who strongly opposed racism. But candidates who framed that opposition in highly specialized, identity-focused language fared significantly worse than candidates who embraced either populist or mainstream language.
Working-class voters prefer working-class candidates. A candidate’s race or gender is not a liability among potentially Democratic working-class voters. However, a candidate’s upper-class background is a major liability. Class background matters.
Working-class nonvoters are not automatic progressives. We find little evidence that low-propensity voters fail to vote because they don’t see sufficiently progressive views reflected in the political platforms of mainstream candidates.
Blue-collar workers are especially sensitive to candidate messaging — and respond even more acutely to the differences between populist and “woke” language. Primarily manual blue-collar workers, in comparison with primarily white-collar workers, were even more drawn to candidates who stressed bread-and-butter issues, and who avoided activist rhetoric.
You can read the full report here.