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Dems should embrace economic populism. The question is how.

A new report emphasizes the critical appeal of anti-elitism in winning the attention of swing voters.

For many years now, Democrats have been plagued by a working-class voter problem. A new report based on a survey experiment says it has an answer to winning them back: economic populism.

The report, published by the left-wing Center for Working-Class Politics in collaboration with the socialist magazine Jacobin and pollster YouGov, raises interesting data points for how Democrats and left-wing activists might win the attention and trust of working class swing voters by focusing on a class lens in messaging. But the report's takeaways raise questions of their own, and they shouldn’t eclipse how much of the work of winning working-class voters depends on more than politicians’ words.

The report, entitled “Trump’s Kryptonite,” is based on a survey experiment in which a sample of 1,650 voters from across the country “who do not self-identify as ‘strong Democrats’ or ‘strong Republicans’” and “whose vote choice or turnout status could plausibly change from one election cycle to the next.” The focus was on finding the middle 60 percent of voters who identified as independents or had weak commitments to either party. The respondents were asked to choose among several pairs of Democratic candidates with different demographic characteristics and policy positions, to test which kinds of candidates and rhetorical styles resonate the most with different kinds of voters. 

Populist us vs. them rhetoric appeals to working-class voters regardless of how they lean politically.

Working-class voters, which the report defined as service workers and manual laborers, displayed distinct preferences. They had a “particularly strong” preference for nonelite candidates, economic populist language, and a federal jobs guarantee. These class-based preferences held true within racial and ethnic groups. For example: Black working-class respondents favored economic populist messaging, while Black managers disfavored it.

Some of the more detailed findings include:

  • Populist us vs. them rhetoric appeals to working-class voters regardless of how they lean politically. “Sound bites that name economic or political elites as a major cause of the country’s problems and call on working or ordinary Americans to oppose them,” appeal to working-class Democrats, independents and Republicans the report says. (Remember, in the context of this report Democrats are "weak" Democrats.) Think: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ tirades against “the 1%” and bankers.
  • Running on a federal jobs guarantee is an extremely strong policy position, appealing to voters who lean Republican and Democratic and across all socioeconomic strata. “Across the 36 different combinations of candidate rhetoric and policy positions we surveyed, the single most popular combination was economic populist rhetoric and a jobs guarantee,” the report notes.
  • Candidates with blue and pink collar professional backgrounds were more appealing than professional or upper-class candidates, especially among working-class Democrats and Republicans. Teachers were the most appealing, while corporate executives and lawyers were the least.

Taken together, the major takeaway is that Democrats’ best bet for winning more working-class swing voters involves running candidates from nonelite backgrounds who use an economic populist rhetoric and advocate for a jobs guarantee. 

This isn’t a peer-reviewed study in an academic journal, and there are inherent limitations to an experimental survey of this kind. While respondents were focusing on sound bite-long messages or descriptions of candidates to determine what resonated the most with them, campaigns in the real world involve a more complex swirl of variables and types of messaging. 

Consider, for example, how John Fetterman, who the report holds up as a model populist, famously coded as an everyman during his successful campaign to become a U.S. senator for Pennsylvania. But a lot of that came down to his appearance of wearing basketball shorts and hoodies; he grew up in an affluent suburb, attended Harvard University and received financial assistance from his parents into his 40s. Perception of what makes a candidate appear elite or nonelite can be hard to predict.

There are also questions about what the sound bites really tell us. The “anti-populist” sound bite floated to respondents includes the line, “Politicians need to listen more to the experts.” While it’s true that establishment Democrats put a lot of stock in expert technocratic opinion when forming policy, that kind of language rarely surfaces in campaigns, even from the most expert-loving Democrats. One is left wondering if the survey tests a weak version of anti-populism that confirms a bias in favor of certain kinds of populist messaging.

It’s also risky to make campaign prescriptions based purely on these data sets, which can obscure high-stakes trade-offs in who is and isn’t targeted by a campaign. For example, consider how the economic populist sound bite is the one that resonated the most to working-class voters, which went as follows: “Americans who work for a living are being betrayed by super-rich elites. Politicians need to listen more to working-class people. Working-class Americans need to come together and elect leaders who will fight for us all against corrupt millionaires.” Now compare that to the racially inclusive economic populism sound bite that was pitted against it, and was viewed less favorably: “White, brown and Black Americans who work for a living are being betrayed by super-rich elites. Politicians need to listen more to working-class people. Working-class Americans of all races and backgrounds need to come together and elect leaders who will fight for us all against corrupt millionaires.” 

For some, the takeaway might be that racially inclusive populism is not a winning formula and should be ignored. But one has to ask what the implications of this are for an actual candidate in the real world — does it mean that none of a populist candidate’s messaging should discuss race? Does it mean that a politician’s policy proposals should be “race-blind”? What does eliding the issue of race do for turnout among antiracists and people of color who are most committed to the party and key to winning many races? 

When the report further breaks down the appeal of racially inclusive economic populism, it turns out that working-class Democrats who were surveyed view it highly favorably. The issue is that nonworking-class Democrats, as well as Republicans and independents of all economic backgrounds are less into it. A familiar question arises: Do you focus more on turning out the base, or persuading people who could be on the fence? And on a policy level, is there a risk of leaving behind marginalized communities if top-line rhetoric doesn’t address them as directly? A candidate’s most memorable sound bites are a lot simpler than their website campaign proposals — and rhetorical focus on one issue doesn’t necessarily mean ignoring others when in office. At the same time, campaigns serve as a tool for developing a political mandate — and ignoring questions of race on the campaign trail can shape the way someone governs. There is a potential price to pay no matter how you approach the issue.

These kinds of dilemmas are a perennial question for the left, and they’ve become particularly contentious during the Trump era. Trump’s dominance among the hugely politically influential bloc of white voters without college degrees has raised questions of how to erode his support among them. But Trump’s bigotry has forced Democrats and the left more broadly to take increasingly pronounced positions opposing the white nationalism that many in that demographic have been drawn to in recent years. In reality, most people on the left recognize it is impossible to oppose Trumpism without talking about right-wing nationalism's hostility to people of color, immigrants and other vulnerable groups. But one thing this report seems to emphasize regardless of where one comes down on the question of focusing on class versus race is that anti-elitism is a potent tool.

There are also many other issues beyond the comms game. Do the Democrats have a plan for not just addressing but actually organizing and mobilizing the huge swathes of working-class voters who don’t vote? Is there a robust infrastructure for recruiting nonelite political candidates? (Justice Democrats, for example, have excelled at this.) Victories are not just about finding the right messaging, but developing a stronger ground game. 

This report provides a fascinating data set shedding light on how Democrats might go about thinking about appealing to the working class. But it’s closer to the beginning of a conversation than an end.