by Alex Roartyaroarty@mcclatchydc.com
New internal Democratic data shows the party’s House candidates can win back the white working-class voters who strongly supported President Donald Trump last year.
But they have a lot of work ahead of them.
House Majority PAC, a super PAC allied with House Democrats, this week unveiled new research about the party’s most troublesome voter demographic, part of a years-long study the group has undertaken.
The data, per one party strategist involved in the project, was “sobering”: White voters without a college degree still view Trump relatively favorably, their opinion of Democrats is in the dumps, and they reject some of the party’s favored economic initiatives.
In a generic House ballot of these voters, Republicans lead Democrats by 10 points, 43 percent to 33 percent. (Twenty-four percent of them were undecided).
But Democratic strategists who produced the report say that amid the doom and gloom, they also see reasons for optimism.
The data showed that a significant chunk of the white working class would vote for Democratic candidates if they heard the right economic-focused message. In the poll, the generic ballot flipped — to 45 percent Democrat and 35 percent Republican — after voters heard positive things about Democrats and negative things about Republicans.
The party’s House candidates, these operatives said, must tailor their agenda to show they are dedicated to working with private enterprise to produce good jobs while making sure they don’t insist the only way to obtain economic success is with a college degree.
“What this research shows is there’s a fluidity to this electorate … they are open to solutions and we have an opportunity, we just need to have a better economic appeal,” said Charlie Kelly, House Majority PAC’s executive director.
“We need to get back to the conversations we’ve had in cycles past and we need to get back to and focus on issues and things that actually matter to these families, which jobs, jobs, jobs.”
The poll that formed the basis for the report included 1,000 interviews of likely 2018 voters in targeted House districts, conducted from June 27 to July 13. The voters were white, older than 24, and the survey had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
The report comes amid promises from groups such as House Majority PAC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that House Democrats in next year’s midterm elections will compete in battleground districts heavily populated by white working-class voters. Some progressive activists have worried that Democrats would prioritize the suburban House districts where Trump performed poorly last year, forgoing the party’s traditional working-class base in favor of a more affluent, better-educated electorate.
Kelly says the data proves that in working-class heavy places such as Iowa, Michigan and upstate New York — each of which has a targeted House race next year — Democratic candidates can win.
But he and other strategists who worked on the project concede it’ll take a focused effort to make it happen because the party’s problems with these voters run deep.
“It’s not just a Hillary Clinton problem that she suffered with this particular constituency,” said Jill Normington, a Democratic strategist who helped produce the report. “This is a long-term issue with the Democratic Party, a steady erosion. This didn’t happen from 2012 to 2016; it wasn’t an overnight issue.”
Sixty-one percent of these voters disapprove of congressional Democrats, the survey found, while just 32 percent approve. The numbers are better for the congressional GOP: 56 percent disapprove of them, while 39 percent approve.
And even as Trump’s approval rating sags overall, a majority — 52 percent — of white working-class voters approve of his job performance.
“We do have a Republican Party who is led by somebody who, when he is focused, does speak to some of the concerns of these voters,” said Pete Brodnitz, a pollster who worked on the project. “It’s more of a challenge in that environment than it had been in the past.”
White working-class voters also favor the GOP over Democrats on nearly every metric, the poll found. When it comes to which party will “improve the economy and create jobs,” Republicans have a 35-point edge. They have a 19-point edge when it comes to ensuring people are rewarded for their hard work, and a 15-point edge on middle-class tax cut.
The only area where Democrats come out ahead is on health care — and even then, they best the GOP by just four points despite the deep unpopularity of the congressional Republicans’ health care plan.
Brodnitz, Normington, and Kelly do see a big opportunity with white working-class voters because of the Republican Party’s attempts to reform the health care system, even though Brodnitz conceded it’s “unknown” how voters will react if the GOP fails to enact any changes into law.
Attacks on the GOP health care bill registered among the highest the study tested. Of the subset of voters the study identified as most persuadable, 74 percent said it made them “much less likely” to support a GOP candidate.
The Democrats’ best-testing positive messages included support for giving companies tax credits if they create good-paying jobs in America and investing in infrastructure. The study also argued that Democrats need to focus on something other than a college education, because many white working-class voters doubt the cost-effectiveness of higher education and prefer a blue-collar job anyway.
“In short, when these voters hear people tell them that the answer to their concerns is college, their reaction is to essentially say – don’t force your version of the American Dream on me,” the study said.