After the 2020 election, which Joe Biden narrowly won in part by taking those three critical states in the Rust Belt that Hillary Clinton had lost in 2016, Democrats and progressives everywhere heaved a huge sigh of relief: the Blue Wall was rebuilt! But as we all know, there are some big cracks in that Blue Wall, and the foundations are shaky. The margins in those three states are far closer than they were in the Obama years; a lot of House and state legislative districts in the region that were supposed to go our way did not; and Biden performed no better in the old Midwestern battleground states of Ohio, Iowa, and Missouri than Hillary Clinton did.
Last year, our organization, American Family Voices, along with our friends at 21st Century Democrats, commissioned a special analysis of voting patterns from 2012 to 2020 in western New York, Pennsylvania, and the Midwest that divided the counties in those states into six categories: big city counties, suburban counties surrounding those big cities, counties outside of the big metro areas with a significant university in them, medium-sized counties with a bigger-than-average manufacturing base, smaller counties with a bigger than usual manufacturing base, and rural counties whose economy was dominated by agriculture.
Democrats had solid pick-ups of their voting margin in the big cities and big city suburbs, netting a little over 500,000 total in each category, partly due to the negative reaction to Trump in those places, partly due to the great GOTV operations employed by the Democrats and their organizational allies. In college towns, we also picked up some votes, a little over 100,000 collectively. Also, to no one’s surprise, we lost a lot of ground in the farm-based rural counties, with a net loss of a little over 550,000, roughly commensurate with what we picked up in both the cities and big city suburbs, so overall we were still ahead of the 2012 margins.
But where Democrats got totally hammered was in the counties where the manufacturing sector was heavier than average. In those midsize manufacturing counties (think Scranton, PA; Youngstown, OH; or Dubuque, IA), where Obama in 2012 had actually won by over total 100,000 votes, our net loss in margin by 2020 was almost 800,000 worse than in 2012. And in the smaller manufacturing counties, our net loss of margin from 2012 to 2020 was almost 1.9 million votes, totally swamping all the gains in big cities, suburbs, and college towns combined.
What was also unsettling was that while Biden did a little bit better than Hillary in gaining some of those Factory Town votes back, it wasn’t much of a pick-up, and in many of those counties the son of Scranton did worse, despite being such a great candidate for these places’ biography-wise.
If Democrats can’t start to do better in these counties, the Blue Wall will soon be history, and old swing states like Iowa, Missouri, and Ohio, will become as deep a shade of red as West Virginia, another Factory-Town dominated state that used to be part of the Democratic coalition.
So, our organization decided to launch a project to study what was really going on in these counties, and how progressives and Democrats -- if they applied their brains and muscle -- could start to bring them back. We are conducting a variety of research methodologies in these counties, including focus groups, ethnographic studies, a deep analysis of the voter file and census tract data, and interviews with local elected officials and organizers in these counties. Today, we are releasing a poll we commissioned by Lake Research that was specifically done in a collection of Factory Town counties in Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
In this time when so many Democrats are rightly concerned about how we start to win back working-class voters, our poll provides some really important data that will contribute to the conversation. Here are some ideas, based on the poll, that we think Democrats ought to be considering:
1. There are big challenges with the Democratic brand, but there is a clear path to making progress with Factory Town voters, and it lies through economic issues.
It is true (and no surprise) that Factory Town voters are not very happy with the Democratic Party. Democrats have a serious challenge in rebuilding a positive connection with these voters; they trail the Republicans in ratings on who handles many of the issues better; and it won’t change overnight. But the basis of that negativity is less about woke language and identity politics than it is about a feeling that, in the midst of hard times for their communities, they have been abandoned and ignored by Democrats. Democrats’ biggest problems with these voters are that they are seen as weak, ineffective, and lacking an economic plan that will make people’s lives better. There is also some pushback in terms of Democrats for allegedly being "too extreme," although that of course can mean a lot of different things, and much of the concern about Democrats being too extreme comes from Republicans.
Another big clue that it is economics that is central to winning these voters back is that the issues that voters mention as their top concern: the rising cost of living, jobs, and the economy, the rising cost of health care are their top concerns, all mentioned by more than 20% of voters. Considerably lower are the classic Republican culture war wedge issues: immigration, crime, and moral values, none mentioned by more than 13% of the voters.
Here’s the other thing people should know about political brands: the Republicans aren’t very popular with voters either. Democratic Party favorability rating is a -7 (45-52), but the Republicans are only at -4 (45-49). Joe Biden is -6 (46-52) on favorability, but Trump is even worse, -10 (43-53). So when people get worked up over our negative brand, yes it’s a problem, but remember that the Republicans in these working-class, non-metro towns are in just about as bad a shape.
2. Our biggest liability right now is rising prices, but we have a strong answer.
The rising cost of living is the biggest problem Factory Town voters are worried about right now, with 35% of voters mentioning it as a top issue. Democrats have to engage with voters on this fight or we are going to get creamed. But the good news is that a populist take on the issue will likely be believable to working-class voters. They are fiercely anti-Big Business, strongly believe that the rules get rigged to benefit those at the top and are angry at their jobs having been moved overseas.
Given those feelings, a message about corporate profiteering and price gouging causing rising prices will resonate. A message about solving the supply chain problems by bringing manufacturing jobs back home will be effective as well. And we should be talking about big oil companies, big global shipping companies, big food companies taking home record profits last year.
We should also lean into populist messaging on health care. Nothing has been inflationary for longer than health care costs; nothing has hurt working families more than those price increases. If we lead with stopping the rising cost-of-living discussion with health care, it will make voters feel like we are taking on inflation in general.
Finally, we should not hesitate for a moment talking about the importance of good paying jobs and tying it to the inflation conversation: many working-class voters in these counties used to be union members, and they remember union jobs where they got automatic cost-of-living raises. Most of these voters feel like they can handle price increases as long as they have a job with good wages and benefits.
3. People are hurting, and they largely blame big corporations and the top 1%.
A majority of Factory Town voters say they or a family member has suffered from a chronic health condition, and have had personal experience with job loss, mental health issues, addiction, and disabilities. These folks, many of whom used to have decent jobs, pay, health benefits, and a pension, are having a hard time making it. They blame the politicians of both parties for ignoring their problems and leaving them behind, but mostly they blame Big Business, CEOs, and the top 1%.
The thing they blame the most for their economic hardships are corporations moving jobs overseas, followed among Democratic and Independent voters by the issue of the top 1% rigging the rules to take more wealth from the rest of us (Republicans in these counties also heavily blame high taxes and government spending, enough that it ties the top 1% issue for second in the list of things causing hardship.) Other issues causing hardship mentioned by significant numbers of people include bad trade deals, too much spending on overseas wars, and a lack of support for family farmers and small businesspeople.
The three most unfavorable ratings in the poll are the corporate media (-45), wealthy corporations (-36), and corporate CEOs (-34).
One other point here: the most salient argument against Republicans, and the thing voters are most negative about them on, is the perception that Republicans are too tied to wealthy, the elite, and Big Business. Republicans are also not rated highly on understanding regular people’s lives.
If you are seeing a trend here, you are right: anti-big corporation economic populism is the path to reaching these voters.
4. The biggest asset for Democrats and progressives in Factory Towns: unions.
As much as people dislike big corporations, they may love unions even more. It’s not a surprise that unions are viewed favorably in these kinds of counties, but they are viewed even more favorably -- and more strongly favorable -- than we would have expected. Any sense that unions were blamed when factories closed down and jobs went away either went away or was never true.
Unions are viewed favorably by 59-26, a +33 percentage. Independents view them favorably 52-24. A weak demographic for Democrats in recent years, 55 and older – especially in these states -- view unions favorably 61-28. Whites view them as favorably as the entire survey group, 59-26, which is unusual because nationwide people of color have always viewed unions more favorably than White voters. And across the board, the intensity of support for unions is much higher than the intensity against them.
When progressive groups run issue campaigns, or when candidates are running for an election, one of the very best things you can say in these counties is that unions support your candidacy or cause.
5. Freedom and responsibility are the top two values voters like.
Both among all voters, and among Independent voters, the values of freedom and responsibility are the ones voters are most drawn to when asked. Equality is third among all voters and highest among Democrats, while hard work is the third highest value expressed both by all voters and by Independents.
Unfortunately, except for equality, those other three top performing words are all associated by voters more with Republicans than with Democrats. Democrats need to contest those words: use them a lot, and define them in a way that helps win the definitional fight over what the words most mean. We cannot let conservatives and Republicans be the only ones who talk about how important these values are, or to define them in a way that only benefits them.
6. Local news is where you want to be.
“Corporate media” is hated by just about everyone, but local news is well-respected and paid a great deal of attention to in the lives of Factory Town voters. When you get questions about the latest awful thing being said on Fox News or NewsMax, writing it off as corporate news helps you a lot. Having positive stories about you in local papers or the local evening news is a huge plus.
7. Don’t forget: enthusiasm to vote right now is a plus for Republicans.
Candidates and issue groups need to be extremely focused on turning out every last vote: there are a lot of Democrats, women, young people, and people of color in small and midsize towns who are sometimes forgotten by campaigns. We should be engaging those voters early and giving them strong reasons to turn out and vote. Economic issues matter a lot to these voters, and they respond well to populist economic pitches as well.
GOTV needs to be a top priority in Factory Towns as well as big metro areas.
Democrats have dug themselves a hole in small and midsize Factory Town counties, the constituency that swung the biggest and hardest against the Democrats from 2012 to 2020. The party brand is weak there, with some big negatives. But these voters are not the cautious, small ball changes kind of swing voters that many DC pundits imagine swing voters to be. Their biggest critiques of the Democratic Party are that they are ineffective, weak, and lack the kind of economic plan that will bring major change to these voters' lives. What Democrats need to do to win Factory Town voters back is to deliver real economic change.
The good news is that this poll shows there is a clear path forward for Democrats. Republicans have big negatives as well, and they revolve around the economic issues people in these counties care the most about right now: Republicans are seen as the party of big corporations and the top 1%, which these voters strongly dislike.
But to overcome the negative brand in the Factory Town counties, Democrats are going to have to be clear as a bell. We need to articulate and pound home a message focused on the core economic issues voters care about, decisively and consistently engage the fight with the big corporations they blame for causing hardship in their lives, and project a confidence that we know what to do in order to take on big business and the top 1%.The message -- and the policy we are delivering -- needs to be about actually solving working families' problems. Democrats and progressives need to especially hammer home the idea of stopping the outsourcing of American jobs and having products be made in America again: this is a huge issue for working-class voters, and people in the Factory Towns don’t have an understanding that it is Democrats who will fight hard for them in this area.
Democrats also need to make clear that they are the ones who delivered tangible things to improve the economy, and that Republicans -- carrying the water of those hated big corporations -- who opposed us at every turn. Factory Town voters’ biggest doubt about the Democrats is their effectiveness, so being effective in passing legislation, delivering the goods, and broadcasting those accomplishments are essential.
We won’t turn our problems around overnight in Factory Towns. But when we engage the fight with the big money powers that be to actually improve people’s daily lives, we will begin making progress right away, including in 2022.