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Lawmakers see blue-collar voters as key in Biden-Trump rematch

Experts say Trump has advantage over Biden with key bloc

A sanitation worker is seen on Maryland Avenue, NE, near the Capitol on Aug. 2, 2021.
A sanitation worker is seen on Maryland Avenue, NE, near the Capitol on Aug. 2, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — The race for working-class voters is underway, with President Joe Biden already working to erase Donald Trump’s edge with what again will be a key group in another close presidential race.

Trump’s convincing New Hampshire primary victory was more of a third coronation, further etching the Republican Party in the former president’s image — which includes his declarations that working-class voters were better off under his presidency. But Biden has been touting a key union’s endorsement and is back to his “Bidenomics” campaign pitch about policies to make the economy work from the “bottom up and the middle out, not the top down.”

Polls suggest Trump has an advantage with this bloc, including in key swing states. But recent economic data has given Biden and Democrats new hope about closing ground among working-class voters.

Since Trump rolled to primary victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, GOP lawmakers have been reluctant to be seen as giving him advice. But some said they want him to focus on immigration and kitchen-table issues they believe will lock in the working-class vote.

“Not only has he been able to attract those votes, but he also delivered on the promises that he made to them. And by any matrix that you want to measure by when he was in office, the country was doing not just better than we are now, it was doing exponentially better than we’re doing now,” Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., said Thursday.

Democratic members in recent weeks have expressed some concerns with the aggressiveness and messages coming out of Biden’s reelection campaign so far. And while the campaign has begun pushing a sharper message and bringing on more high–profile Democrats, some still want Team Biden to go harder on issues they say working-class voters care about the most.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., noted Thursday that she “grew up in a blue-collar family — my dad was a beer truck driver.”

“What we cared about was the economy and, you know, supporting unions. Our family would have been in big trouble except for the union,” she said. “And you know, things like the safety net. I remember once my dad was unemployed, the only thing that saved us was unemployment insurance. So I think those basics are important to people.”

But asked if Biden and Co. are talking enough about those kinds of issues, she replied: “I don’t know.”

Former GOP Rep. David Jolly noted in a recent email that both Trump and Biden during their political careers “have made successful, authentic appeals to working class voters — but perhaps Trump has continued to increase his share, outpacing past Republican performance as measured against Democratic performance.”

“A second consideration would be that Trump has attracted and introduced new — some first-time — working-class voters to our elections,” Jolly continued. “The numbers certainly show that he has attracted new and infrequent voters. It is true, for instance, that he did receive more votes than any incumbent, despite his misuse of that stat.”

Working-class voters of today are like those of the 20th century in that many lack a college degree. But they are different because many are no longer working in unionized manufacturing jobs, which have declined substantially in recent decades. Nowadays, the broad term covers workers in industries like retail, personal services, health care, food services and similar sectors. And these days, many are not members of a labor union — but they do have a political preference.

“While working class voters harbor reservations about both political parties, they align more with Republicans than with Democrats on most of the matters that concern them,” according to the Brookings Institution’s William Galston, a former Clinton White House aide. In New Hampshire’s GOP primary, Trump dominated among voters without a college degree, according to data compiled by The New York Times.

Because many aim to one day start their own business, hurdles like permitting and regulations mean “they are less instinctively pro-government than were members of the working class in the long era of Democratic dominance that stretched from the 1930s through the 1960s,” Galston added.

Missouri GOP Sen. Josh Hawley, who grabbed his seat with a similar flavor of the conservative populism Trump successfully ran on eight years ago, said that for his party to be viable for years to come, it must hoist the working-class banner even higher.

Hawley called on unnamed members of the Republican “establishment” to stop resisting Trump’s efforts to make the GOP a “working-class party.” To that end, Hawley late last month said Trump and other 2024 Republican candidates should shape their campaign messages and strategies based on a handful of questions.

“For independent voters and other voters who don’t really care about politics and … don’t care about an R or a D behind [a candidate’s] name, what they do want to know is: Are you going to stand up to China and bring jobs back to this country? Are you going to get my wages growing?” Hawley said. “Is it too much to ask to get an economy where you can actually support a family on a working wage, which you used to be able to do in America? … I think people want to hear an agenda. How am I going to be able to protect my job? How am I going to be able to afford prescription drugs?”

‘A scab’

But not everyone agrees that blue-collar workers only have a home in Trump’s GOP.

“Every time I hear that song, ‘Not Afraid,’ I said it was my anthem, just so you know when I ran for this position,” Shawn Fain, United Auto Workers president, said on Jan. 24 while delivering an endorsement of Biden from the presidential lectern during an event in Washington, D.C.

Fain even called Trump “a scab,” saying he has opted against helping working-class voters while using a derogatory term for workers who carry out a job while unionized employees are striking.

“And I can tell you right now, we sent a message that the working class is not afraid,” he added, contending Trump, as a candidate in 2016, pushed policies that would “screw the American working class.”

Trump responded on social media by calling Fain a “dope,” then huddling privately last week with top Teamsters union officials. He did not rule out securing the Teamsters’ endorsement, part of a strategy to peel off just enough union voters in key swing states like Michigan, saying after the meeting: “Stranger things have happened. … Usually, a Republican wouldn’t get that endorsement.”

With the 2024 election being forecast by analysts of all stripes as, right now, a dead heat, Trump’s strategy shows an old adage still stands: Every vote counts.

Ruy Teixeira, an American Enterprise Institute nonresident fellow, noted last week that this bloc “will be the overwhelming majority of eligible voters, around two-thirds, and — even allowing for turnout patterns — only slightly less dominant among actual voters, around three-fifths.

“Moreover, in all six key swing states — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — the working-class share of the electorate, both as eligible voters and as projected 2024 voters, will be higher than the national average,” he added.

Like other Democrats, Lofgren signaled last week that the Biden campaign’s long-game approach — that voters will side with the president as they begin paying closer attention to the election — is sound.

“We’ve got a lot accomplished. People are starting to see it,” she said. “And I think it matters for normal people.”

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