Feel Like a Number

There is a great old Bob Seger song called Feel Like A Number that talks about a working-class guy whose employer -- and society -- doesn’t care about him. There is a lot of that feeling going around in working-class America right now.


According to a study produced by my organization, American Family Voices (AFV), and 21st Century Democrats, the biggest changes in partisan voting margins in the battleground states north of the Mason-Dixon line between 2012 and 2020 did not happen in big cities, the much-discussed big-city suburban counties, or in the most rural, agricultural-economy-based counties. Democrats gained about 500,000 net votes in the first two categories and lost about 500,000 in the last category. Those are all big and important changes, but none too surprising given a higher turnout election, and the well-documented dislike of Trump in the suburbs, and affection toward him in rural America.


Where the biggest and most ground-shaking change in net votes came from, though, was in the small and mid-sized counties with a heavy manufacturing presence, the places I have come to call “factory towns.” In these counties, Barack Obama did pretty well in 2008 and 2012, but Democratic presidential campaigns had a net loss of about 2.6 million votes between 2012 and 2020 (the numbers very similar in 2016 and 2020).


These are the counties hardest hit by deindustrialization and factory closures. They have been slammed by the impact of trade deals, by opioid addiction and rising suicide rates, by the financial collapse and foreclosure crisis of 2008-9, and by the decline of health care and social services in their communities. The unions that used to be there fighting for their members’ jobs, wages, and benefits -- as well as educating them about politics and getting them out to vote – are generally either gone or significantly weaker.


In cooperation with Lake Research, AFV conducted a poll of voters in these kinds of counties several weeks back, finding out a lot of really important things about their attitudes, and over the last couple of weeks followed up with four focus groups of working-class voters from these counties. We will come out with a full report on those focus groups in early May, but I came away from them with the following thoughts for Democrats about reaching swing voters in the working class:

  1. Economic populism is the path to winning over more working class voters. These voters tire quickly of “partisan bickering,” which is how they describe pretty much any attack on the other party, but they really do dislike greedy corporations, corporate CEOs, and the top 1%. These are the entities which they blame for job and pension loss, rising prices, the general economic decline of their communities, and the struggles they are having in their own lives. I think we had about one person in each focus group (out of about nine people in each) who had a more economically libertarian outlook and was uncomfortable with the populist corporate attacks, but not even those people thought wealthy corporations were on their side or were likable entities. The Republican line about these wealthy people and companies being forces for good because they are the job creators definitely wouldn’t have any traction with these folks.

To win over working-class voters, Democrats need to aggressively lean into populist economics: taxing the wealthy and wealthy corporations, stopping price gouging and profiteering, bringing jobs home and buying American, helping workers and unions gain power in relation to corporations, helping small business against corporate monopolies are all deeply powerful and resonant themes. Given that this kind of populism motivates Democratic base voters as well makes it pretty clear what a strongly populist moment this is in American politics.


Populism also is by far our strongest defense against our biggest liability in this election year, inflation. Working-class voters think inflation has lots of causes, but they are very inclined to believe that corporate profiteering is at the top of the list.


Both parties are viewed cynically, but the working-class voters we have been polling and listening to in focus groups feel pretty strongly that Republicans are the party of wealthy corporations, CEOs, and the top 1%. Given how much they dislike those entities, Democrats have a real chance if they make clear they are willing to take on greedy corporations and fight- really fight, and not just pay lip service- for workers.


2. These voters are stunningly cynical about the government, both political parties, and big corporations, but they still believe in the power of community and the goodness of their neighbors. These voters don’t like or trust either political party much at all, don’t believe that the government is helping them much, and they really -- deeply and truly -- are not big fans of greedy corporations. The cynicism is so thick it is hard to reach and move people, even when they agree with the specific messages and issues talked about in the ad and speech-language we tested.


But these voters still believe in and love their communities. They talked about people in their communities coming together to help those in need, about how there is still hope for those trying to start new businesses, about how much they appreciated their local teachers. The old idea that Martin Luther King used to talk about, building the beloved community, would have resonance with these voters.


One other recommendation: given the cynicism about politicians, one thing I would recommend is making a big deal of Republican hypocrisy when they brag about projects back home that Democrats delivered, and they opposed. Voters aren’t following politics enough to know which politicians supported or opposed specific bills, but if you point out that a politician is taking credit for something they opposed, it is the kind of thing that will make people very angry- plus, it reminds them that Democrats did get some things done.


3. We’re going to need a lot more to win this year than campaign ads: we need to build community. Along with their cynicism about the political parties is an even deeper cynicism about political ads. We, of course, had a variety of reactions to the range of ads and statements tested, and some of them tested pretty well. Yet one of the things that struck me the most about the focus groups was that before showing people our ads, people would talk about economic issues in a way that was almost word-for-word similar to the ads we were about to show them, but after hearing those ads, some still would say things like “Oh, that’s what Democrats always say” or “I just get tired of all the negativity in ads.” Voters have heard so many ads over so many years that their natural tendency is to be skeptical of all of them. Campaigns are going to have to be creative about how to communicate with voters.


I would not advocate not running ads at all; I think campaigns still need to compete on the airwaves. But the less our ads sound like every other political ad, the better, and we ought to be focusing on reaching voters in other ways. Candidates and party committees should be spending time doing things like sponsoring community events like Sherrod Brown’s “movie nights,” which he does in the old movie theaters of Ohio’s mid-sized towns, where the theme is to build community spirit and togetherness. Or they could set up events that were community health clinics where people come in and get health care assistance that they couldn’t otherwise afford. Or Chautauqua style events, where musicians, community theater performers, poets, and community organizations spend a day in a community.


My friend Steve Rosenthal, who was the AFL-CIO political director for many years and now runs a consulting firm called Organizing Inc, talks about an old factory town in Pennsylvania where the union hall of the big Steelworkers local used to have a bar and bowling alley where people hung out with their neighbors and, yes, talked politics. The steel plant closed down, and so did the union hall with that built-in way to draw people together. Unions, Democrats, and progressive organizations who want to win working-class voters back need to not just run ads: they need to rebuild that sense of community.


Or, as another long-time friend and partner of mine, Heather Booth, would put it: we have to organize. That old-fashioned door to door, person to person, co-worker to co-worker, friend to friend organizing. Too much of our party machinery and communications has become centralized over the past few decades: we need to get into the streets and be organizing again.


4. Is there danger in the culture war? Yes. But the Republicans are overplaying their hand, and we can win with populist economics. We tested a strong dose of culture war argument with these factory town voters. Parts of the statement certainly had appeal to some of these voters, but the impression I came away with is that Republicans are overplaying their hand. A lot of the voters in these groups rated the statement very poorly, and said it was just political manipulation. Even many of the ones who responded more positively to it pushed back: one of the most conservative women in one focus group said the language about teachers’ grooming was too much, that she knew some teachers and they were good people.


In general, the voters we heard from were more focused on economics, and more positive about our economic populist messages, than they were worried about the culture war boogeymen that the Republicans are throwing out to them. We can win a populist economics vs culture war fight, and we can win a fight where we engage with the right on these issues.


This is not to say progressives and Democrats should ignore the culture war attacks. We have strong arguments we can make, arguments that we win when we push back with our values and passion the way Mallory McMorrow did in her now famous speech on the floor of the Michigan Senate. But we should always start and finish with populist economics.


5. Health care is still a super powerful issue, and don’t forget disability issues. When we did our poll of factory town voters, the single most powerful thing in the data to me was how many people’s families were struggling with health-related issues, mental health problems, and disability issues of different kinds. More than half of respondents said that they or a member of their family had suffered from chronic health problems, mental health issues, addiction issues, or other disability issues. People in the focus groups were talking about these concerns as well. It is an important and powerful thing for candidates to talk about wanting to help people with those kinds of problems. This data point has been confirmed in other research Lake Research has done on disability issues.


And people are sick (forgive the pun) of rising drug and health care prices. It came up in every single group, and the most popular message we tested was about fighting for lower drug prices.


6. Don’t oversell, and be thoughtful in how you attack. As mentioned above, working-class voters are cynical and in a generally bad mood about politics, politicians, and government. When we asked them to fill in the blank on this sentence “I am feeling ‘blank’ about the way the country is going right now,” the vast majority of the words they picked were negative -- words like worried, concerned, upset -- or very negative, words like terrible and horrible. There were a few words in the mixed category, such as uncertain or up in the air, but that was as good as it got, and the vast majority were more negative.


In this polarized atmosphere, trying to do ads that lead with all the great things Democrats are doing to turn things around don’t perform well. And ads that launch a frontal assault on Republicans are seen as just the same old political infighting. Needless to say, it’s a challenging messaging environment.


So what are we to do with our ads and other communications? Here’s a few thoughts:

  • Third-party validators have some real potential. With this pro-union cohort, when we read a positive statement about how much Biden was doing to help labor unions, people were generally quite impressed, and a whole lot less cynical about that kind of message. I imagine other third-party ads from people voters like -- small business owners, retired firefighters, etc -- would have a similar impact.

  • After some focus group participants reacted negatively to some of our attack language on right wing politicians, we tried an experiment in our last focus group where we didn’t directly attack the other side but had a candidate saying this: "Big Business CEOs and lobbyists already have people representing them in Congress. I’m running to fight for working people. I’m the only candidate in this race who wants to make sure that the billionaires and big corporations pay what they owe in taxes, so that the rest of us can get good schools and roads and health care. I’m the only candidate in this race who will take on Big Oil and the big food companies and the big drug companies and force them to stop price gouging and will vote to enforce the antitrust laws so that small businesses can compete against the big monopolies. I will work with anyone in either party who wants to help working people, but I will stand up to anybody in either party that looks down on us and tries to divide and distract us so that they can line the pockets of their big contributors. When I was growing up my parents told me that Democrats were the party that fights for working people. One of the reasons I’m running for Congress is to make sure my party lives up to its roots.” We played it for the focus group that was probably the most pro-Republican of all the ones we conducted, and even they mostly liked this kind of message. The fact that the candidate wasn’t directly attacking anyone, yet still drew a clear contrast, and the fact that they suggested they would show some independence from their party in order to fight for working people, really played well.

  • Tell a story about yourself and your opponents, but tell it with specifics and proof. The more specific our messages were about issues and solutions the candidate believed in, or about policy failures of the opponent, the better these voters liked it. Absolute, blanket statements attacking the GOP were widely dismissed as partisan fighting, but pointing out specific votes taken resonated better.


Conclusion


There is no doubt at all that 2022 is a challenging environment for Democrats. Inflation is hurting the party badly, and voters are so cynical they are not inclined to believe messages about all the great things Democrats have done. But there is a path for Democratic candidates to turn the dynamics around: tell the story about how they are willing to fight for working people and take on Big Business.


For all the challenges we saw in these focus groups, I am more convinced than ever that Democrats have a path to winning this election. It will take more than just the usual slickly produced TV ads. It will take more than generalized slogans designed carefully not to offend. We are going to have to pick some fights with big corporations that are screwing people, we are going to have to be specific in talking about solutions, and we are going to have to do some old fashioned people-to-people organizing and community building. We must make voters feel like they are more than just a number.


It is also absolutely critical that Democrats keep delivering the goods to working class voters. Congress needs to pass more legislation that taxes the wealthy and big, profitable corporations, and uses the money to create jobs in solar and wind power, lowers the cost of child care and health care, builds more affordable housing units, and delivers more of the Biden agenda. And the Biden administration needs to keep delivering with more executive action that helps workers and small businesses.


Carpe diem, folks: time to seize the day.

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