Can progressives win U.S. workers’ votes?

Jacobin magazine, the YouGov polling organization and the newly organized Center for Working-Class voters did a poll to find out what progressives need to do to win working-class voters.  Here are the key takeaways.

Working class voters prefer progressive candidates who focus primarily on bread and better issues, and who frame those issues in universal terms. This is especially true outside deep blue parts of the country.

Candidates who prioritized bread-and-butter issues (jobs, health care, the economy) and who presented them in plainspoken, universalist rhetoric, performed significantly better than those who had other priorities or used other language.  This general pattern was even more dramatic in rural and small-town areas, where Democrats have struggled in recent years.

Populist, class-based progressive campaign messaging appeals to working-class voters at least as well as other varieties of Democratic messaging.

Candidates who named elites as a major cause of America’s problems, invoked anger at the status quo and celebrated the working class were well received by working class voters—even when pitted against more “moderate” strains of Democratic rhetoric.

Progressives do not need to surrender questions of social justice to win working class voters, but “woke” activist-inspired rhetoric is a liability.

Potentially Democratic working-class voters did not shy away from progressive candidates or candidates who strongly opposed racism.  But candidates who framed that opposition in highly-specialized, identity-focused language fared significantly worse than candidates who embraced either populist or mainstream language.

Working class voters prefer working-class candidates.

A candidate’s race or gender does not appear to matter much to potentially Democratic working-class voters. But candidates with upper-class backgrounds performed significantly less well than other candidates.  Class background matters.

Working-class non-voters are not automatic progressives.

We find little evidence that low-propensity voters fail to vote because they don’t see sufficiently progressive views reflected in the political platforms of mainstream Democratic candidates.

Democratic partisanship does not hurt progressive candidates.

Working-class voters prefer progressive candidates running as Democrats to candidates who stress their independence from the party.

Blue-collar workers are especially sensitive to candidate messaging—and respond even more acutely to the differences between populist and “woke” language.

Primarily manual blue-collar workers, in comparison with primarily white-collar workers, were even more drawn to candidates who stressed bread-and-butter issue, and who avoided activist rhetoric.


Added Later.  Overall, it’s not rocket science.

  • Promise things that are of benefit to working people.  Keep your promises once you get in office.
  • Talk about bread-and-butter issues, such as jobs and health care, that affect everyone, or at least all wage-earners.
  • Defend rights of minorities, but in universalist terms—equal rights for all, not white guilt.
  • Speak in plain language.  Don’t use jargon words such as “classism” or “Latinx.”
  • Don’t run candidates who are members of the economic and social elite, or talk like them.

One interesting result of the survey is that there is no risk in running women or people of color as candidates. That’s probably because the American working class consists disproportionately of women and people of color.

Another is that there is no reason to think that progressives can win the tens of millions who don’t vote for either party.  

Maybe that would change if they got into power, and actually did things that made a noticeable difference.  The experiment is worth making.

Workers who were surveyed preferred progressive Democrats to progressives running as independents or third-party candidates.  

That’s a problem, because the Democratic Party since the 1990s has been set up to block independent candidates, from Bernie Sanders to India Walton.

This poll was not a poll of a cross-section of American voters.  It was a poll of a segment of the public whose support Democrats and progressives need if they are to win elections.

The poll covered some 2,000 people in five states who were over 18 years old, not Republicans, and not college graduates, and had incomes of less than $100,000 a year.


Message to Democrats: embrace economic bread-and-butter issues to win by Matthew Karp and Dustin Guastella for The Guardian.

Commonsense Solidarity: How a Working-Class Coalition Can Be Built and Maintained, a PDF of the complete report.

Last Week’s Elections Were Not a Repudiation of the Left by Branko Marcetic for Jacobin.

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