What Do Working Class Democrats Want?

A Labor Day Op-Ed by Tom Buffenbarger and Leo Hindery

Over the long Labor Day weekend, working class Democrats will do what they always do — spend time with family and friends, fire up the grill, maybe go to a ballgame, and at least check out the big end-of-summer sales. But while they will enjoy this respite, most of them won’t actually be partaking in a lot of those sales.

You see, in a recent poll commissioned by UCubed, a nonprofit that advocates for the unemployed which we have supported, less than a third of working class Democrats feel that their finances have improved since the Great Recession. Half of them believe that their family’s income is falling behind the cost of living. And despite recently lower gasoline costs, more than two-thirds feel that their electricity bills and their natural gas or heating oil bills are an oppressive burden on their family’s budget.

The most disturbing finding, however, is that only 31 percent think that their children will be better off than they were. In other words, for seven out of ten working class Democrats, the promise of the American Dream, around which they’ve based their lives, has instead become a mirage.

This UCubed survey was unique. It drew its sample from an enhanced list of non-college Democratic voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, which are the first four states to vote or caucus in 2016. And the diversity of the sample was painstakingly matched up with we know about the actual voters in these states. In short, they were a cross section of today’s Democratic Party: overwhelmingly white in Iowa and New Hampshire, heavily African American in South Carolina, and materially more Hispanic or American Indian in Nevada.

And when the rubber hit the road, we found that seven out of ten of them feel that the working class always gets the short end of the stick and that the gap between the rich and everyone else is factors too big. They also believe that too many manufacturing jobs have been sent overseas.

While we tested their preferences for president and the likelihood of their voting in a primary or attending a caucus, the vast majority feel – and we agree – that this is not yet the time to pin down preferences among the five candidates seeking to be the Democratic nominee. This massive subset of voters – these working class Democrats – will, beginning early next year, be front and center at the various caucus gatherings and in the poll booths.

The campaign-related lesson we learned from this exhaustive survey – and the lesson which every Democratic campaign should acknowledge – is that working class Democrats feel that they are too often being left behind in the early days of campaigning. Instead, in their view the campaigns are overly concentrating on voters who are thought to be either ‘late-breaking undecideds’, ‘readily persuadable’, single-issue voters, or ‘easily turned on and turned out’.

But our survey suggests that these millions of good people with their strong opinions and their deeply felt frustrations and brooding anger should also be front and center during this fall’s campaigning. Today, twenty-two presidential candidates – 5 Democrats and 17 Republicans – will tweet their mostly sterile Labor Day paeans and bromides to working Americans, but will any of them talk forthrightly to the millions of scared and scarred employed middle class workers and to the more than 16.5 million unemployed, underemployed and uncounted workers?

Seventy percent of the working class Democrats surveyed believe that the American Dream has been snatched from their grasp, and the presidential candidates who speak honestly to struggling and displaced American workers will always have our support. The UCubed survey has reminded us that every American worker wants fair employment, a secure retirement and better lives for the next generation. These are the tenets around which the next president should be constructing his (or her) campaign and framing his (or her) tweets.

R. Thomas Buffenbarger is International President of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Leo Hindery, Jr., a longtime media executive, is founder of the Task Force on Jobs Creation and Jobs First 2012, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.