Senior Fellow, London Center for Policy Research
Published August 29, 2018 in The Hill
Could blue-collar workers blunt a blue wave? A new poll suggests they just might.
For decades, blue-collar voters helped form the backbone of the Democratic Party. They were such a reliable voting bloc that whenever they defected in significant enough numbers to elect Republican presidents, they earned their own monikers: Nixon Democrats, Reagan Democrats. Those instances were largely considered aberrations, explained away by the particular persuasiveness of Richard Nixon’s and Ronald Reagan’s economic and national security messages and their powerful personal relatability.
Bill Clinton was able to bring those voters back into the Democratic fold by embracing centrist policies. Sixteen years later, Barack Obama embodied a historic candidacy, but he further alienated traditional blue-collar voters who were turned off by his radicalism.
As the Democratic party increasingly catered to the coastal elites and moved further to the left, those blue-collar voters became ever more alienated. They waited for someone — anyone — to address their economic, national security and values-based anxieties. To respect them. To “get” them.
In 2016, that person arrived in the unlikely form of a New York real estate mogul who was far more comfortable with the hardhats on his construction sites than he was with the bankers and foremen. The “blue-collar billionaire” spoke like a guy from Queens because he was, in fact, a guy from Queens. That raw authenticity was valued by blue-collar folks, who considered him to be “one of them.”
They, in turn, rewarded him on election day. White working-class voters comprised one-third of the 2016 electorate; Trump won them by about 39 percentage points, far outpacing Mitt Romney’s 2012 margin. They made up the basis for his wins in the critical swing states, particularly in the industrial rust belt, from Pennsylvania to Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Today, they continue to support Trump and his policies. This is particularly true of his economic agenda as they benefit from the bounce-back in manufacturing, energy-sector and construction jobs, wage growth and the successful renegotiation of trade deals — like this week’s new NAFTA deal with Mexico — that disproportionately slammed them.
A new Harris poll of blue-collar workers, conducted on behalf of Express Employment Professionals and released today, bears this out.
According to the survey, blue-collar laborers are among the most optimistic groups in the country: A whopping “85 percent of [them] see their lives heading ‘in the right direction’ and 51 percent say the same about the country. That is 12 percentage points higher than among all Americans who say the country is heading in the right direction (39 percent), according to the July edition of the Harvard-Harris Poll polling average.”
That optimism carries over into other areas. Fifty-five percent say they are better off now than they were five years ago. And they believe this positive momentum will carry forward in the years ahead: A stunning 88 percent of blue-collar parents agree with the statement, “My children will have a better future than I will.”
Indeed, the poll reports that 80 percent of blue-collar workers are optimistic about the future, and more than one-third (34 percent) say they are “very optimistic.” Eighty percent also agree that “the harder you work, the more successful you will be,” and 70 percent believe that the “American dream is alive for people like me.”
The poll found something else that should strike fear in Democrats. Blue-collar workers are slightly more likely to identify with the Democratic Party, 35 percent vs. 31 percent for Republicans — which makes the fact that they think Republicans do a better job than Democrats of helping blue-collar Americans, 39 percent vs. 36 percent, even more astonishing.
For everything we’ve been hearing about economic anxiety, the Harris poll suggests otherwise.
Blue-collar workers’ confidence in the future is high. And they approve of the job President Trump is doing by +4, largely because they are enjoying the economic boom he is delivering and are tuning out the media-driven noise.
These are dangerous data points for Democrats, who continue to ignore them at their electoral peril. These voters were indispensable in putting Trump over the top in the states that matter, and they look poised to deliver for him and his party again in the midterm elections and in 2020. The much-hyped blue wave may hit a blue wall thanks to the unlikely “blue-collar billionaire” who is directly improving their lives after decades of empty promises from Democrats who took them for granted.
The approval and optimism of the key blue-collar voting bloc — combined with rising approval numbers from other traditionally Democratic constituencies such as African-Americans, Hispanics and young people, who also are enjoying historically low unemployment rates — is an encroaching existential threat to the left.
The dramatic realignment Trump led in 2016 is still underway, roiling expectations and defying prediction. And while Democrats are merrily anticipating big gains in November, many of their core voters may have an unwelcome surprise in store.