But in the campaign, he improved on Hillary Clinton’s anemic 2016 performance with those voters only modestly. And in office, an array of recent polls show he’s failed to increase his approval rating with those non-college-educated White voters much, if at all, beyond the roughly one-third of them who he attracted last November — even though he’s aimed much of his rhetoric and presidential travel at them and formulated an agenda that would shower them with new government benefits.
“The key is you have a president who is speaking to them and fighting for them, non-college-educated voters of all races,” says John Anzalone, who served as a lead pollster for Biden during the campaign. “I think he has their attention, and that’s what is really important for the future, whether the 2022 election or 2024.”
But the continuing resistance confronting even Biden — a 78-year-old White Catholic who highlights his working-class roots at every turn — underscores the challenge an increasingly diverse and culturally liberal Democratic Party will face in recovering as much support as it attracted from these voters as recently as in Barack Obama’s two campaigns.
It may be too strong to say Biden represents the Democrats’ last chance to restore their competitiveness with working-class White voters. But it seems likely that if he can’t do so, there are few others in the Democrats’ next generation of emerging leaders who have a better chance.
“I don’t see people on the horizon” who could do better for Democrats, says David Kochel, a Republican consultant based in Iowa, one of the heartland states where the rightward shift of working-class Whites, especially those in rural and exurban communities, has decisively tipped the partisan balance toward the GOP.
Losing blue-collar Whites
Working-class White voters constituted the bedrock of the Democratic coalition from the 1930s to the 1960s but the party has lost ground among them, largely because of issues relating to race and culture, in the half century since. For almost as long, the party has debated how much emphasis to place on recapturing those voters.
On the other hand, blue-collar Whites remain overrepresented as a share of voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — the three Rust Belt states that will remain pivotal to Democrats’ White House hopes until they can more reliably win the Sun Belt battlegrounds.
Biden’s presidency stands as a potential hinge in this extended debate: If even he can’t significantly improve the party’s position with these voters, it will likely embolden those who want the party to shift its emphasis from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt; from recovering working-class Whites to mobilizing its emerging coalition of younger voters of color as well as college-educated Whites.
“The electoral danger” in Biden’s strategy of focusing so heavily on recapturing blue-collar voters, says Steve Phillips, founder of the advocacy group Democracy in Color, is that “Democrats will be so focused on not alienating Whites that they will mute the policy agenda that could excite the sectors of the electorate which are much more receptive.” And those voting blocs, Phillips adds, “people of color and young people, are also the growing parts of the population.”
Targeting working-class wallets
Previously unpublished details on the 2020 results provided to me by each of those sources offer a more nuanced picture of Biden’s performance. Democratic analysts who believe the party must continue emphasizing blue-collar White voters often argue that the Democrats’ weakness with them is exaggerated by the large number of culturally conservative evangelical Christians in their ranks. And indeed, the previously unpublished results provided to me from the exit polls, the Cooperative Election Study and Pew all show that Biden lost non-college-educated White voters who identify as evangelical Christians by an even larger margin than Clinton did: All three of those sources showed Donald Trump winning about 85% or more of those voters, up from around 80% in 2016. Trump’s support among White non-college evangelicals reached about 90% in Southern states such as Georgia, Texas and North Carolina, according to the exit polls.
By contrast, each of those three studies showed Biden improving over Clinton among the non-college White voters who are not evangelical Christians. Even so, all three studies still showed him losing those non-evangelical blue-collar Whites to Trump and winning only 42% to 47% of them. Comparing each study with its own 2016 results, only in Pew’s did Biden significantly improve over Clinton’s performance with them.
How crucial are they for Democrats?
For many liberal analysts, the big takeaway in these results is that Biden has made such marginal gains with blue-collar Whites as a candidate and as President.
“All of the obsessing over a 3% uptick in White non-college polling numbers [for Biden] misses the larger and more important reality: There is a ceiling for Democrats [with them] so long as they are seen as the party affiliated with people of color. Are we really supposed to get excited over 32% support instead of Clinton’s 29%?” says Phillips, author of the upcoming book “How We Win the Civil War.” “Isn’t the dominant, and consistent, reality the nonsupport?”
While Biden has framed his public identity around courting blue-collar Whites, Phillips says, the party would be better served by investing more “in efforts to increase turnout of people of color” especially across the Sun Belt; focusing more on causes that energize young people (including racial justice and climate change); and redirecting “some of the millions of dollars spent on research and data analysis on trying to better understand how to increase White support for racial justice instead of the current practice of seeking magic words for Democratic candidates by downplaying any connection to people of color.”
Similarly, Taifa Smith Butler, the new president of Demos, a liberal think tank focused on racial equity, told me, “As this nation becomes majority people of color you will have to think about the broader coalition of the electorate.” Democrats, she said, “cannot kowtow” to an older White electorate at the price of sublimating the priorities of “marginalized communities … that we could be lifting up and elevating” rather than “continuing to try to appease White moderates.”
The counter view in the party is that even the very small gains among working-class voters remain pivotal. Exit polls in 2020 found that among these non-college White voters, Biden did improve slightly over Clinton in Pennsylvania and more substantially in Wisconsin and Michigan. Those gains were modest, notes Sean McElwee, a leading pollster for progressive causes, but they had an outsized impact by helping Biden recapture the three Rust Belt states that keyed Trump’s 2016 victory.
“When you are dealing with a demographic group as large as non-college Whites, any sort of difference matters,” says McElwee.
McElwee says the evidence is that only a very small number of working-class Whites may be open to persuasion from Biden, but “the problem is that increasingly small groups of people are still determinative in politics.” He adds: “If you look at how close these margins are in Michigan or in Pennsylvania, we can’t afford to lose 2 to 3 points with non-college Whites because it is such a big demographic. “
McElwee is optimistic that Biden’s kitchen table agenda ultimately will propel at least some gains with blue-collar voters: In polling that his company Data for Progress has done for the advocacy group Fighting Chance for Families, for instance, Trump voters who have received the child tax credit express much more positive views about it than those who have not.
Anzalone, the Biden pollster, likewise says the picture may look different once families receive more of the tangible benefits Biden is promoting.
“There’s a lot of stuff … people won’t see for a long time,” Anzalone says. “The bottom line is this is a president who is committed to create opportunities for working families to succeed and be a bigger part of this economy. … This [political] conversation a year from now may be different. The fact is he’s competing for this demographic, and that’s important.”
The struggle ahead
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center who studies blue-collar voters, is also dubious that Biden can regain much ground.
“I think Biden’s doing what he can, but these voters lean right on culture and immigration: He’s leaning left on those issues and that holds him back,” Olsen told me in an email. “I don’t think the modern Democratic Party, with its vocal cultural left, can win 40% of non-college whites [again] absent a big GOP misstep.”
Ruy Teixeira, a veteran Democratic analyst now at the Center for American Progress, agrees that economic issues will take Democrats only so far. Biden’s “theory of the case is that we are going to deliver for the masses of honest workers in America … and the people who don’t like us, the suspicious non-college White voters, are going to be able to overcome their cultural reservations about the party,” says Teixeira, who has written extensively on the evolving Democratic coalition. “But the theory that you can just do good economics stuff and ignore the rest … is probably mistaken.”
Teixeira believes Biden’s strategy of downplaying cultural issues is insufficient: He argues that the President must more explicitly reject the left’s positions on issues such as crime, much as Bill Clinton did during the 1990s.
And that means the ceiling on Biden’s potential recovery with blue-collar White voters, whatever economic agenda he passes, is probably lower than he hopes, though not necessarily lower than it takes to improve his position in some closely contested states. “People think” the effort to gain the electoral high ground for 2022 and 2024 “is going to happen through one swift katana move,” says McElwee, referring to the sleek Japanese sword favored by samurai, “when in fact it’s a really brutal game of inches.”