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A Strategy for Factory Towns


Hard times, effective right-wing messaging, the demise of local news, and sometimes the Democratic Party itself have led to big changes in the voting and opinions of people living in small and midsized towns that have been most impacted by deindustrialization and increased Big Business power in the economy. But these Factory Towns voters are not lost causes to the Democratic Party, and we cannot afford to write them off. They comprise 48% of the voters in Pennsylvania and the Midwest, and if we continue to lose ground with them, the entire region will become more and more like Iowa and Missouri – tough states for the foreseeable future. However, if these counties start to move back toward the Democrats, that kind of progress could be the linchpin to building sustained Democratic majorities that can usher our country into a more progressive future.

This report is part of a continuing effort by American Family Voices to do on-the-ground research and data analysis to understand the thinking and motivation of working-class voters, and to recommend strategies that can begin to rebuild the Democratic Party’s and progressive movement’s historic connection to America’s working class.

The project focuses on voters in “Factory Town” counties in six key states: Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. These states were Ground Zero in 2016, breaking down the “Blue Wall” critical to Democratic victories. Joe Biden did just enough better in 2020 to help win back Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, but these communities in all six states remain very tough for Democrats and will be among the most highly competitive counties for 2024.

Despite the challenges, this is a moment where Democrats have an opportunity to make more gains. Biden and the Democratic Congress have passed substantial legislation that can bring progressive change, all the way down to the community level, over the next two years. The president’s policies, background, and genuine affinity for these working-class communities make him an ideal leader for this effort.

This report combines data from our most recent polling, Facebook and digital analytics, and comparisons of county-by-county elections results in 2022 to the past decade of state election results. The report closes with recommendations on how Democrats and progressive issue advocates should move forward with Factory Towns voters and counties.

Here is the bottom line in our findings:

1. The presidential horse race numbers are very competitive in these counties, but Republicans are stronger in terms of the economic frame.

2. Voters have negative opinions of both parties: this presents both challenges and opportunities for Democrats. Voters in these counties tend to think Democrats lack an economic plan, but they see the GOP as the party of wealthy corporations and CEOs.

3. Populist economics and the Democratic economic policy agenda play very well in these counties. These voters respond best to an agenda focused on kitchen-table economic issues.

4. Contrary to conventional wisdom, populist economic messaging works much better than cultural war messaging. Our strongest Democratic message on the economy beats the Republican culture war message easily. The Republican economic message is a bigger threat to us.

5. Community building needs to be at the heart of our organizing strategy.

6. I recommend that Democrats and progressives make major investments in local field organizing and door-to-door, special events that build community, online community building, existing local media and progressive media targeted to these counties, and progressive organizations that make sure voters know how to benefit directly from the Biden policy initiatives of the last two years.


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American Family Voices (AFV) started the Factory Towns Project in 2021. We identify “Factory Towns” as the working-class manufacturing counties hardest hit by deindustrialization outside of the biggest metro areas.

Democrats saw the bottom drop out of our margins and percentage in Factory Towns between 2012 and 2016. Biden performed a little bit better in these counties and that helped him win in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. And Democrats made enough progress in these counties to help us win key statewide races in 2022 and many of the contested House races in Pennsylvania and the Midwest.

But these counties remain very tough for us, and are among the most highly competitive counties for 2024. The midsized Factory Towns in our research went for Obama by a net vote margin of over 100,000 votes. Four years later we lost them by about 700,000 votes. (The smaller manufacturing-oriented counties in our research fell off worse than that – our net margin in 2016 was about 1.9 million worse than 2021.) But after Biden made a modest improvement in 2020, they are about even right now in the polling, which is good news for us. And there are lots of swing voters here: according to our TargetSmart analysis last year, probably about 60% of that change in vote between 2012 and 2016 was due to people switching their votes from D to R, the rest split between Trump surge voters and Democrats who did not turn out.

Since 2021, AFV has done demographic economic and voter file analysis and generated conversations with more than 500 local leaders. We conducted a baseline poll early in 2022 followed by focus groups in the spring and another poll in December to see whether voters’ perspectives were changing in these communities. Last fall, we experimented with message testing on digital platforms and community building on Facebook, learning a lot about what worked with these voters, and we organized a Factory Towns tour of these communities with the Rick Smith Show, a radio program focused on labor issues.



Trump is now 39-56 in these Factory Town counties where he previously swamped us twice. Most of those unfavorables are strongly unfavorable, so he is in bad shape at the moment.

Kevin McCarthy is the least well-known of the politicians we asked about, with almost a third of voters having no impression of him yet (either no opinion or never heard of him at all), but for those who know him, he is already deeply disliked: down 29-41, with 29% of voters strongly unfavorable towards him. The more voters hear about him, the better for Democrats.

DeSantis is surprisingly well known, with only a fifth of voters having no impression of him (21% no opinion/never heard). And he is a threat, as he is the only one of the four politicians we asked about who has a net-positive rating, 42-37 – although his margin of support is entirely soft. His strongly favorable vs strongly unfavorable ratings are even at 28-28.

Given that these are counties we lost pretty badly in 2020, Biden is in decent shape, only underwater in terms of favorability by six points, 46-52. The bad news is that intensity is much higher on the negative side. Among voters with strong opinions, we are down a lot: 24-45 (24% of voters are strongly favorable, while 45% are strongly unfavorable).

One other thing that is important to note here: in spite of Biden’s relatively decent approval numbers, and Trump’s abysmal ones, the horse race numbers are still basically a dead heat. A considerable number of voters here will have at least an initial tendency to vote for Trump even if they don’t like him all that well.



Congressional Generic Ballot

Combined Biden/generic congressional polling state by state. The old Factory Towns in Michigan tend to have remained more Democratic than in other parts of the Midwest, and we are strongest there in terms of horse race numbers (the generic Congressional ballot generic is at +8 for Democrats), favorability ratings (Biden is +6), and how people are responding to the strong economic messaging from Michigan Democrats (message ratings in Michigan are consistently higher than in other states, in several by 20+ points).

In spite of the barrage of attack ads on Biden and inflation last year, our Factory Town numbers in Wisconsin have held up pretty well: Biden is only two points down (47-49) in his favorability rating. Interestingly, Trump’s worst state on favorability in these counties is Wisconsin, where he is down by 27 points. And Democrats are at +4 in Wisconsin on the generic Congressional ballot.

In the other states, Biden is more underwater in these Factory Towns: -11 in Pennsylvania, -12 in Ohio, and -20 in the combined Iowa/Minnesota numbers. (We did have a small sample size for Iowa and Minnesota, so some of the variation may be due to that.) The generic Congressional ballot is closer in PA (-2) and OH (-5), but awful in IA/MN: -17. There are, however, solid gains on the generic Congressional ballot in IA/MN after voters hear our economic messaging, so in the closely competitive House and state legislative races in those states, our economic message could help us win a couple of seats.

2022 Election Results Compared with Past Elections

Michigan. Obama routed Romney in the midsized manufacturing counties, taking over 55% of the vote, while Clinton was beaten in these counties, getting only 48%. Biden was able to add a little more than a point to Clinton’s total, but Whitmer in both of her elections reached 54%, close to the Obama numbers.

In the small manufacturing counties, Clinton suffered an even steeper drop: Obama won almost 44% of the vote, while she won only about 35%. Biden got about 37%, while Whitmer had nearly 42% both times.

Pennsylvania. The midsized Factory Town counties hovered around 50% D/R in 2012 and 2014 statewide races, but took a deep dive in the 2016 presidential race – Clinton got about 43% of the vote. Biden added two points in 2020, getting to 45%, and Fetterman added two more, getting to 47%. Shapiro went over 52%, which was even better (by a point) than Casey’s numbers in 2018.

In the small Factory Town counties, Obama 2012 was at 38.5%, and Hillary did more than seven points worse, slightly over 31%. Biden was able to add a point and a half to that, ending at almost 33%, while Fetterman got almost 36%.

Wisconsin. Obama 2012 won about 52% of the vote in the midsized counties, while Clinton won just over 46%. Biden gained only a point in 2020, getting to 47%. Governor Tony Evers was at about 48% both times, but Senate candidate Mandela Barnes performed slightly worse than Clinton, just below 46%.

In the small manufacturing counties in Wisconsin, Obama won almost 50%, but Clinton crashed here, barely getting above 40%. Biden was almost exactly the same (40.2 vs 40.3), the one state where he didn’t do better than Hillary by at least a point or two. Evers got a little above 43% in 2018, and a little below 42% in 2022. Barnes only won 30.5% in these counties. Tammy Baldwin was an outlier: close to 50% here both in 2012 and 2018, showing her strength as a candidate.

General observations in the Factory Town counties in other states in 2022.

  • Iowa should be a warning sign for us all about the Factory Towns: if we don’t have a serious organizing strategy for these counties, they are going to keep getting worse and worse. Iowa has been generally moving away from us for a decade now, but even so, in 2018 there were solid candidates who targeted small and midsized counties. We won three of four congressional races, and almost won the most rural district in the state and the governor's race. The last four years have seen very little organizing work outside of the Des Moines metro area, and the results are no Democratic congressional seats, and even popular, longtime statewide officials who held their offices for four decades (Tom Miller and Mike Fitzgerald) lost.

  • The Tim Ryan race in Ohio is a reminder that targeting only the swing, working-class voters in the Factory Towns is not a path to victory, unless it is combined with a strategy for energizing and turning out the Democratic base vote. For one thing, there are still quite a few base-vote Democrats who live in Factory Towns, and you can’t improve the margins there to the maximum extent without also engaging and turning out those voters. More importantly, if you look at 2022 turnout for Democrats in big cities and among young voters, big city voters, and people of color, it was pretty weak. Ryan did relatively well in the Factory Town counties, holding his own or doing better compared to recent Democratic performances, but his margins in the big Democratic counties were far smaller than they needed to be. The formula for victory has to be to do both.

  • It is no surprise that Gov. Walz in his re-election campaign did pretty well in the Factory Town counties given where he is from and his positioning. Strong progressive AG Keith Ellison survived a weaker performance than in 2018 in the Twin Cities’ suburbs by paying a lot of attention to Factory Town counties in the Iron Range and in Southern Minnesota. His populist message, willingness to take on big corporate interests including Big Ag and Big Oil, and focus on voter registration and GOTV of immigrant communities not only in the Twin Cities, but in the Factory Towns paid off in a big way. His victory is another model for winning through targeting Factory Towns.

  • Besides the aforementioned disappointments in Iowa, we did pretty well in the congressional races with a Factory Town demographic. We won all three of the competitive Factory Town dominant races in Pennsylvania, three competitive seats in Ohio (two of which were pure Factory Town districts and one of which was a combination of Cincinnati and some Factory Town-style turf outside the city), three of four races in Michigan, and two Mississippi River districts in Illinois. The other loss in the region was Ron Kind’s open seat in Wisconsin.

  • Another huge area where we had some exciting wins in this region were state legislative chambers. We flipped the Minnesota Senate, both the House and Senate in Michigan, and the Pennsylvania House. These were the Democrats’ only chamber flips in the country. The fact that the Factory Towns region had four of them is a sign that we are making progress in these states.



Economically populist issues dominate what’s most important to these voters to address with policy, and in my later section on practical populism, I will discuss them more. Some other issues worth noting:

  • The number one economic policy proposal both in terms of overall support (93%) and strong support (81%) is protecting Social Security and Medicare. Expanding those programs is also very popular, but less so than just protecting them.

  • Investing in apprenticeships and job training was the second highest rated economic policy proposal, with 77% strong support and 92% support overall.

  • Investing in state and local infrastructure is also incredibly popular, with 92% overall support and 66% strong support.

  • Investing in home-based care options for the elderly and disabled has 88% overall support and 64% strong support.

  • Raising the salary threshold on overtime has 81% overall and 61% strong support.

  • Most of the Democratic policy agenda has fairly strong support, even items that do not top the list, including more financial aid for college, free community college, guaranteed paid family and medical leave, and making the Child Tax credit permanent. All are in the 60s in terms of overall support, and in the 40s in terms of strong support.

When we tested Facebook ads, the messages that got the strongest positive responses were ads attacking oil company price gouging, affirming the value of unions, and talking about the importance of helping small businesses. These tested well among swing voters and even some moderately conservative audiences. The union ad, for example, tested very well among the working-class conservative audiences.


The good news is that we haven’t lost much ground in the horse race numbers over the last year, and a populist Democratic economic message is pretty close to even with a Republican economic message. The bad news is that right now, our poll shows Democrats are slipping in the battle over the economic narrative.


The voters in these counties have a natural proclivity to economic populism, and that is still definitely true, but there have been recent shifts that raise warning signs for 2024.

Compared to the original baseline poll we did in these counties a year ago, the horse race numbers are about the same, very close to even. Given how badly we lost these counties in 2016 and 2020, even would actually be quite good. The problem is that voters in these counties, including swing voters, independents, and even some Democrats, are viewing the economy along a much more Republican narrative than they were a year ago. Given how dominant economic issues are for these voters, this is going to become a much bigger problem if we don’t do something soon to turn it around.

A year ago, these voters were indicating that corporate greed and corporate CEO decision making was the dominant reason for economic hardship in their communities. Now they are saying that big spending and government waste is the number one problem. It’s not that these folks can’t be moved by populist messaging, but the progressive populist narrative is no longer top of mind for them. All those TV ads blaming Biden for inflation have clearly had an impact, and we can’t let that GOP narrative stand.



There is no doubt that we have some big challenges to overcome with Factory Town voters. I am a firm believer that with the strategies we have been talking about, we can continue to make steady progress in these counties, but we will need a concerted, strategic effort to achieve that progress.

All of the problems outlined in this section are related – and they reinforce each other in a negative feedback loop. That is why it is going to take a more comprehensive approach to solving the Democrats’ poor performance in Factory Towns.

In a regression analysis isolating the effect of voters’ perceptions of negative traits of the parties on their Congressional vote, holding demographic variables and party identification constant, negative traits that most affected the vote in isolation were things like “don’t understand my life,” “don’t share my values,” “work for the elite, not the people,” “have no real economic plan,” and “too extreme.” Both parties run into some trouble on these topics. Troublingly, Factory Towns voters think Democrats don’t have an economic plan and don’t understand their lives. Republicans also have significant economic weaknesses, including that voters, particularly independents, perceive them, more so than Democrats, as favoring the elite and wealthy corporations over people.

The biggest barrier to Democrats and progressive groups making gains in the Factory Towns is the intense cynicism of these voters. As I noted above, they don’t like or trust either party, or the media, or the government. Political campaign speeches and TV ads by themselves aren’t going to create much movement.

The second problem is many decades of Republican messaging about tax-and-spend Democrats and lazy people getting handouts. This old right-wing line still packs a punch.

The third big problem is the “extremism” thing. Swing voters do have the impression that Democrats (as well as Republicans) are too extreme, though they don’t necessarily identify any particular issue, or even a set of issues, as problematic. It seems more impressionistic than anything else.

A fourth challenge is that most people in these counties believe their neighbors are more Republican than they are. Peer pressure can be a problem, so we need to figure out on-the-ground strategies to lessen this dynamic.

Finally, one big negative that comes up in polling and focus groups in these working-class non-metro counties is that they see Democrats as weak and ineffective, especially when it comes to economics. And they don’t believe Democrats have an economic plan, at least not one focused on their lives.

Democrats across the region, though, are proving that these challenges can be overcome. Candidates such as Sherrod Brown, Gretchen Whitmer, John Fetterman, Bob Casey, Josh Shapiro, Tony Evers, and Tammy Baldwin have all proven you can do well enough in these counties to score solid statewide wins in purple or even lean-red states. Joe Biden showed enough improvement in these counties over Hillary Clinton’s 2016 to win back Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Even a candidate strongly identified as a progressive like Keith Ellison survived a relatively weak showing in the Minneapolis suburbs (due to intense police union attacks) by doing relatively well in Minnesota’s Factory Town counties in the Iron Range and the South.

Culture War vs Economics?

There is little doubt that the cultural differences between metro America and non-metro America play a role in the political divide between the two sectors, and that working-class folks find urban and intellectual “wokeism” annoying. But the evidence in our research (as well as other polling we have seen) is that, contrary to many pundits’ assumptions, economic issues are driving the problems of Democrats in non-metro working-class counties far more than the culture war. Based on the evidence I have seen, these voters wouldn’t care all that much about the cultural difference and the woke thing if they thought Democrats gave more of a damn about the economic challenges they face deeply and daily.

One important thing to note: both Democrats and swing voters in Factory Town counties are pro-abortion rights, pro-gay rights, anti-book burning, in favor of teaching children about the real history of slavery and the civil rights movement, and in favor of a path to citizenship for most immigrants. While cultural issues framed a certain way by Republicans can pack a punch, the voters we need to win in these counties are not inherently right wing on social issues.

It is also important to point out that while the swing voters in these counties say they are against defunding the police and in favor of a secure border, they are open to Democratic messaging on both crime and immigration. And those issues are not listed as high priority issues by many swing voters, let alone Democrats. Immigration is listed as a top tier issue by 16% of voters, and crime by 12%, far below the top tier issues (which are economic). Furthermore, these numbers are driven more by Republican voters, as opposed to swing voters or Democrats.

Most importantly, when we tested a Republican culture war message vs a populist economic Democratic message, we won handily: 50-41.

However, we are in a hole on the economy in general. Our strongest economic message is competitive with their economic message, but loses slightly to it, 43-46, because people are inclined to accept the Republican economic framing. A three-point margin isn’t bad given that we were losing to the Republicans nationwide on economics by 20 points in 2022, but we have the potential to do better. It is also true that the reason the numbers are that close is that the populist message wins strongly in Michigan; that message loses by bigger margins in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In Ohio, we are down four points on the head-to-head message comparison, which isn’t bad given the Republican lean in the state.



We tested a number of different approaches to economic messaging in the poll, and found that our most populist message performed the best. We also discovered in our broader issue messaging that some of the most populist language on other issues also tests very well. Language about the top 1% gaming the system to get richer tests very well. A range of populist economic policies test extraordinarily well with these voters, including cracking down on wage theft, cracking down on corporate price gouging, closing tax loopholes that allow wealthy corporations to pay no taxes, increasing overtime pay, breaking up corporate monopolies, and lowering interest rates on payday loans. All of these issues test in the 70s or 80s in overall support, and 55% or higher in terms of strong support.