Democrats Aren’t Campaigning to Win the Working Class

Jared Abbott and Fred Deveaux
President Joe Biden speaks during an IBEW conference in Washington, DC, April 19. (Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Apr, 22, 2024

A new study examines the Democratic rhetorical and campaigning failures that may help Republicans entrench their position as the new party of the American working class.

Democrats are losing the working class — and if the trend continues, it’ll reshape American politics for generations. Simply, there’s no sustainable path to victory in national elections without these voters, a more affluent Democratic base means less electoral support for progressive economic policies, and losing the working class will accelerate the rise of far-right populism.

While there is growing debate about whether and how Democrats can win back the working class, recent analyses we have conducted at the Center for Working-Class Politics suggest that their best bet is to run economic populists from working-class backgrounds. Take the case of Marie Gluesenkamp Perez. The freshman Democratic representative prevailed in 2022 in southwest Washington’s largely working-class third district, despite the fact that she was given just a 2% likelihood-of-victory rating by 538.

Like any campaign, this contest was determined by many factors, but the following language from Gluesenkamp Perez’s campaign materials is telling:

Marie is exactly the kind of working class Washingtonian that has been left behind in this economy. . . . In Congress, Marie will be a voice for working Washingtonians, support small businesses and worker’s rights, lower the costs of healthcare, childcare and prescription drugs . . . and expand apprenticeship and skills training programs. . . . I’m running to take on politicians who are bought and paid for by large corporations who refuse to pay their fair share while working families who follow the rules fall further behind.

Gluesenkamp Perez portrays herself as an economic populist. She champions the working-class and points the finger at economic elites; focuses on economic policies that improve the well-being of everyday, working Americans; and underscores that her own class background helps her to understand the issues that are important to other working-class voters.

Gluesenkamp Perez’s messaging approach is consistent with the findings of our research on working-class voters’ preferences: they prefer candidates from working-class backgrounds to elite candidates, are attracted to candidates who explicitly call out elites and raise up the working class, and support candidates who focus on progressive, bread-and-butter economic issues.

Though Democrats were given an electoral reprieve in 2022 due to the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and a particularly lackluster set of Republican candidates, the Democratic Party saw further erosion of support among working-class voters — including working-class Latinos and African Americans. This made us wonder just how common it is for Democrats to run the type of economic populist campaigns needed to appeal effectively to working-class voters.

To answer this question, we collected information on all 966 Democratic candidates who ran for Congress in 2022. With the help of a research team, we scraped information from their campaign websites to see how many use economic populist rhetoric, advocate progressive economic policies, and come from working-class backgrounds.

Our main finding is that Democrats are not running the types of economic populist candidates they need to win back workers. Only a small fraction call out economic elites in their campaigns. While many candidates talk about economic issues in general, comparatively few mention bold, popular progressive economic policies that would have an impact on working people’s lives — from large-scale programs to create high-quality jobs to policies to strengthen unions or raise the minimum wage. And lastly, almost no candidates are working-class themselves. This gap between politicians and the people they represent is stark: while nearly 50% of Americans have a working-class occupation, only 2% to 6% of Democratic candidates running for Congress do.

Democrats’ rejection of economic populism has serious consequences. It shows that the party is still not taking seriously the exodus of working-class voters. And this is despite the evidence we find that populists are actually more likely to win precisely in districts that Democrats need the most: heavily working-class districts. This relationship persists when we control for a wide range of important factors that determine electoral outcomes, such as district partisanship, incumbency, and candidate demographic characteristics.

It’s Progressive Economics, Stupid

The key to winning the working class begins with putting forward economic policies that signal commitment to improving the economic well-being of working Americans. To do this, candidates need to push for ambitious policies that will create more and better jobs for those struggling to make ends meet, strengthen protections for workers who want to unionize to improve their wages and working conditions, and revitalize American manufacturing and communities hard-hit by decades of mass corporate layoffs. These policies are popular among working-class voters across the political spectrum.

While Joe Biden’s agenda has been more economically progressive than that of any previous Democratic administration in decades, it has not been nearly enough to show increasingly frustrated working-class Americans that Democrats are the party of working people. There has been no progress on widely popular policies like Medicare for All and even low-hanging fruit like the $15 minimum wage. The Biden administration’s signature jobs policy — the American Jobs Plan — would have led to historic investments in good-paying manufacturing and infrastructure jobs to the tune of $2 trillion, but was sacrificed at the altar of centrist inflation fears.

While the fate of progressive economic policies is often outside Democrats’ control, the party’s messaging around these issues is not. So did Democratic candidates in 2022 run on progressive economic policies? The vast majority did not. Only 31% of Democratic congressional candidates mentioned the need for high-paying, quality jobs, just over 23% mentioned Medicare for All, and 18% talked about paid family or medical leave. Even more surprisingly, virtually none mentioned a $15 minimum wage (5%) or a federal jobs guarantee (4%).

When we restrict our attention to general elections and only those candidates running in competitive districts (Cook PVI plus or minus five), we find a slightly more encouraging picture: a much larger share mention high-paying jobs (45%), indicating that when they have to be strategic to win working-class votes, Democrats do recognize the value of progressive economic policies. That said, almost none of these Democrats mentioned Medicare for All (<3%), despite its broad popularity.

This is not to say that Democratic candidates aren’t running on more generic economic issues like “jobs” (nearly 70%) and “infrastructure” (50%). But when it comes to more specific policies — particularly the expansive progressive policies described above — we see comparatively few takers. Vague generic language around jobs and infrastructure is simply not enough to send a strong signal to voters that the Democrats’ economic priorities have really changed.

The few economic progressives were highly concentrated in safe Democratic districts. This suggests that, despite evidence to the contrary, Democratic candidates seem to worry that voters in competitive races will be turned off by progressive economic appeals.

Adding Emotion to Economics

Even the best messaging around progressive economic policies will only get Democrats so far. As Donald Trump has masterfully shown, strong visceral, emotional appeals to disaffected working-class voters that highlight the legitimacy of their grievances against out-of-touch elites in Washington can be a powerful way to reach voters — even when there is little or no policy substance to go along with it. Americans across the board hold negative attitudes toward the rich and positive attitudes toward ordinary, working-class Americans. These populist attitudes have only been increasing over the last decades.

The Democratic response to this environment is uneven. We find that most candidates do raise up workers in their rhetoric. And a substantial share talk about labor, unions, and mention working-class Americans in other ways. But pro-worker rhetoric is the easy part. It’s typical for politicians across the spectrum, Republicans included, to speak positively about the American worker. It is much less typical to call out the economic elite — but this is a key component of economic populism, and one that is very popular among the public.

Our results show that a much smaller share of candidates use anti–economic elite rhetoric. Even the most generic terms, such as “special interest,” and references to money in politics and large corporations are employed by roughly 15% of candidates. Under 10% of candidates call out Wall Street, billionaires, millionaires, CEOs, etc.

Candidates who make it to competitive general elections are far more likely to use such anti-elite rhetoric (nearly twice as likely), but even here only 30% to 35% of candidates invoke the negative influence of special interests and corporate donors. One noteworthy exception was Keystone State populist Christopher Deluzio, who managed to retain Conor Lamb’s old seat in western Pennsylvania by throwing down the gauntlet against big corporations and pledging to defend working Americans.

Importantly, economic populists did run in the kinds of districts best-suited to win over working-class Americans. Economic populists were far more likely to run in competitive districts and in open seats. Even more crucially, they performed better than other candidates in general elections — particularly in highly white, non-college-educated districts, and districts with the highest share of people employed in working-class occupations. This pattern holds up after controlling for many other factors that influence electoral outcomes, such as office (House or Senate), incumbency status, candidate race and gender, and district population and partisanship (PVI).

Interestingly, however, economic populist candidates were more likely than other candidates to come from elite backgrounds; they were less likely to have had at least one working-class job in their past and more likely to have gone to an Ivy League school. Since there is evidence that working-class candidates are more appealing to working-class voters than candidates from elite backgrounds, it’s likely that economic populism would be an even more effective tool for Democrats if it had more messengers who matched the message.

What Do Democrats Focus on Instead?

As mentioned above, it is important to note that Democrats are talking about the economy and jobs on their websites — indeed, at a much higher rate than they talk about progressive cultural issues or even abortion — but they are just not talking about the specific kinds of bold, progressive economic reforms they would need to highlight to attract more working-class voters.

One limitation with campaign websites is that they don’t tell us much about which issues candidates focus on when they are forced to prioritize. The absence of length constraints means that candidates do not have to be nearly as strategic in their messaging choices online as they are in other, higher-stakes venues like TV ads. To address this, we also transcribed and analyzed over nine hundred Democratic TV ads of candidates running in competitive 2022 House races.

Here we find that fewer than 20% of TV ads mentioned jobs at all, while less than 2% talked about good, high-paying, or union jobs, and fewer still mentioned manufacturing jobs or job-training policies. Similarly, less than 5% of ads included phrases like “worker,” “working families,” or “working people.”

By contrast, abortion shot to the top of candidates’ list of priorities — dwarfing even rhetoric around jobs policies. In fact, candidates were three times more likely to mention abortion in their TV ads than any primarily economic issue.

Our analysis of the key themes of 2022 Democratic TV ads in competitive districts puts the relative lack of focus on economic issues in even starker relief. We tabulated the main issues candidates tackled in hundreds of ads and found that, while economic issues (very broadly understood, from jobs to consumer prices) were the key theme in 30% of ads, the other 70% focused primarily on issues like abortion, right-wing extremism, and the personal qualities of the candidate or their challenger.

He’ll Represent Us Because He’s One of Us

Our previous work indicated that working-class voters prefer candidates who come from working-class backgrounds. Talk is cheap, and with the growing distrust of elites and the two major parties, maybe even anti-elite rhetoric isn’t enough to persuade voters that candidates actually understand or care about the problems they face. The only types of candidates that working-class voters consistently see as understanding their interests are those with working-class backgrounds.

Yet despite making up over 60% of the population, working-class Americans are almost nowhere to be found among the 2022 Democratic candidates. Just 2.3% of the 925 candidates for which we could find occupational backgrounds were working-class (understood as having held exclusively working-class jobs before entering politics). If we expand our definition of working class to include service-sector professionals such as teachers and nurses, this number increases slightly to 5.9%. And if we further expand it to include candidates who ever had a working-class job in their adult lives, the share is roughly 20%. Democratic candidates are hardly representative of the American public.

When the 20% of candidates with at least some working-class background do run, however, they convey a level of identification with working-class voters that other candidates simply cannot. Take California congressman Jimmy Gomez, whose campaign website focuses on how his own working-class experience makes him uniquely suited to understand and champion the needs of his working-class constituents:

[Gomez] was born in Southern California and raised by his Mexican immigrant parents who worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. Right out of high school Jimmy began working at a fast-food restaurant and a local retail store stocking shelves overnight, gaining a better understanding of his parent’s struggle to make ends meet, the need for a good job with benefits, and most importantly a quality education. Jimmy recognizes that his story, although not unique, today entails an even more difficult path and is out of reach for far too many.

Gomez explicitly connects his own working-class history with that of many of his constituents, allowing him to convey that he really does know what it’s like to be in their shoes and will act accordingly in Congress. And there is good reason to believe he would: we also find that working-class candidates are systematically more likely to use rhetoric that reflects a commitment to working people than other candidates on the campaign trail — a fact that should reinforce their credibility among voters.

So why then are there so few working-class candidates? There are many possible reasons, including more limited access to rich donor networks, less capacity to take time off to run for office, limited prior experience holding office, and difficulty raising money. On the latter score, our analysis of 2022 candidates finds that working-class candidates are systematically trounced in the primaries, where they just don’t raise the same amount of money as other candidates do. When they make it to the general elections, however, we find that working-class candidates do just as well as other candidates, indicating that it is not some intrinsic quality of these candidates that is holding them back.

Bring Economic Populism to the Mainstream

There is a great deal at stake in the 2024 elections, both in terms of stopping the far right from gaining near-total control of our national political institutions and stopping the defection of working-class voters. Progressives need to take economic populism much more seriously if they hope to achieve either goal. That means putting egalitarian economics, along with anti–economic elite and pro-worker language, at the heart of their campaign messaging — and finding more working-class candidates who can deliver that messaging convincingly.

If action isn’t taken soon, Republicans will entrench their position as the new party of the American working class, and working-class dealignment will become permanent.