The Battle for Working People Begins With Reaching Them

By Karen Nussbaum

Two concepts lurk at the heart of political strategist Stan Greenberg’s piece about how Democrats can cohere a winning election strategy. First, garnering the vote of the Rising American Electorate—people of color, young people and single women—is not sufficient; progressives need to reach the white working class, especially white, working-class single women—to build a New American Majority that can win elections and push through progressive policies. Second, Greenberg asserts that in order to persuade working people and white single women to embrace a progressive agenda, one needs to acknowledge and respond to their deep distrust of government, which they see as corrupt
and deaf to their problems.

Given those insights, Greenberg and others in search of progressive gains have an avenue for success with Working America. Every day, all year long, year after year, Working America reaches white, working-class people who don’t have a union on the job—and more than half of those are working-class women. Whether Working America canvassers knock on doors in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, or Pine Bluff, Arkansas, they have proven the effectiveness of conversations that couple the corrosive effect of money in politics with an appealing progressive platform for change. While our experience supports much of what Greenberg argues, including the notion that white, working-class, women voters are, in fact, winnable, we would go a step further: Our experience suggests that even Republican strongholds such as the South and West show signs of weakness when voters are engaged.

White women are the largest demographic among Working America’s membership, accounting for 1.3 million of our 3 million members. Based on what we hear at the doors every night, it’s little wonder that white, working-class and single women voters react positively to Greenberg’s narrative about streamlining and reforming government. After all, what’s government to them? Democrats have done far too little to reach out to white, working-class voters in recent elections, and government has lagged on addressing their core economic needs. In fact, though these voters may be rising in the electorate, they are sinking fast in today’s economy. These women are reachable in 2016, and Democrats must actively engage them with policies that outline new and far-reaching economic solutions.

Working women and men are deep in the midst of a dramatic change process, because they simply have no choice in the matter. America’s white, working-class experience is not the same one of 35 years ago, when Ronald Reagan came into office, nor is it the same as more than 20 years ago, when Bill Clinton first took the White House. Today’s members of the working class are confronted with the realities of the emerging precarious economy, which has unstable, erratic work as one of its centerpieces. Unpredictable scheduling demands, relentless low pay, nonexistent benefits and part-time work are today’s normal. Greenberg is correct to point out that women often bear the brunt of these new burdens. They’re more likely than men to hold the part-time, low-paying jobs and are saddled with much of the child and elder care responsibilities.

Working America organizers are out in a dozen states, holding front-porch conversations with working people who struggle to stay afloat. A full 85 percent of our members are in working- or lower-middle-class households making less than $75,000 a year. Given the reservoir of information on working people we have collected over the years, we looked back at nine years of data gathered on their doorsteps—starting in 2007 (the last contested Democratic primary season) and continuing until now—to identify emerging trends. One clear statistic broke with common assumptions about women voters. Overwhelmingly, our working-class and lower-middle-class women members told us that good jobs were their No. 1 priority (40%), beating out health care (32%) and education (14%). It turns out, these working women’s top priority was not so different than that of men in this income bracket, 45 percent of whom chose good jobs as their top priority. And though Greenberg suggests that the white working class is more solidly red in the South and Mountain states, our organizers have found that working women in purplish states such as North Carolina and Colorado are also deeply concerned about good jobs and are open to economic solutions.

When working-class voters talk about “good jobs,” they mean more than tax credits. They mean bold, new policies that help them get a handle on their schedules, their paychecks and their long-term economic security. They mean a government that incentivizes corporations to create and retain full-time, well-paying jobs. And, as Greenberg points out, they’re keen on policies and messages that address the power imbalance in elections and in government. Even in conservative-leaning states, programs and laws that counter growing corporate power are key, like reviving workers’ ability to join together in collective bargaining.

While Greenberg certainly is right that working people often feel that elected leaders do not prioritize their needs, our experience is that white, working-class Americans are not anti-government. Rather, they are dispirited and disengaged, and have lost belief in their own collective power. Once upon a time unions served as a credible source of information on economic issues for such voters, yet now Fox News and talk radio’s call for small government and individual responsibility fills that void.

If Democrats want to win these voters, they must first re-engage with them and repair the base, one by one. Over the last decade and a half, Working America has found that we can go through any working-class neighborhood in this country, sign up members and dramatically influence their votes. We reawakened a nascent belief that average people could do something about jobs and the economy. Just engaging in those conversations was enough, apparently, to inspire voters to vote progressively. In the 2014 election, for instance, research by Hart Research Associates of canvassed and general public voters in five senate battlegrounds reveals that women canvassed by Working America voted for the Democratic candidate at a rate of 13 points higher than you would expect based on their party identification, versus five points for all women. Independent voters who were contacted by Working America were 11 points more likely to support the Democratic candidate than those we didn’t contact. In addition, Working America members tend to vote in more elections, even though rates are still too low. Women in single-person households who are Working America members are more likely to routinely vote (46%) than are those in the general public (38%), voting in at least three of six major recent elections. What’s our secret? We talk to voters about the economy, highlight the outsized role corporate cash plays in electing leaders and influencing government, and give them hope that by uniting with other working people they can tilt the odds in their favor.  “I think the Republicans are trying to create a monarchy, get rid of the middle class, and create a bigger divide,” Jan-Marie Weaver of Hastings, Minnesota, recently told one of our canvassers. “They’re keeping the poor people poor, and the rich richer.” Weaver is clearly ready for a middle-class economic narrative. It’s up to the Democratic Party to reach out to her and give her a real reason to believe that greater economic security is on the 2016 horizon.

Karen Nussbaum is Executive Director of Working America.