How the Democrats Lost the Middle Class | Opinion

What is driving the defection of working, middle-class voters—who make up the majority of the electorate—from the Democratic Party? The answer: Democrats' priorities are substantially out-of-touch with this group specifically, and with those of the largely populist American electorate generally.

These are the findings of a new national survey. The poll, which measured the core values and beliefs of 900 likely midterm election voters, found that nearly 70 percent of the electorate embraces a populist outlook, either fully or partially, which is grounded in a desire for politicians to focus on the most immediate barriers to individual advancement.

These voters are most concerned with skyrocketing prices, the looming recession, and rising crime. They also view uncontrolled immigration as a major concern, and see it as intertwined with crime rates.

You'll notice that this is the precise agenda that Republicans are running on this year.

There are two segments within this larger populist group. The first, which comprises roughly one-third (34 percent) of the 2022 electorate, can be classified as true "populists." These voters embrace American exceptionalism and the notion of God-given—not government granted—rights. Roughly six in 10 identify as Republican, and only one-in-four voted for Joe Biden in 2020.

This segment of the American body politic believes in the power of individual initiative and shares the belief that Americans can get ahead if they work hard. A multi-racial category that includes Black and Hispanic voters, populists are averse to identity and class-based politics and view "wokeness" as a backward step and a distraction.

Three key everyday issues crowd out all the others with these voters, because they threaten individual advancement today: the deteriorating economy, increasing crime rates, and the migrant crisis at the Southern border.

Mayra Flores
People pledge allegiance to the US flag at a campaign event for Republican Monica De La Cruz, running for Congress, and US Representative Mayra Flores (R-TX), who is running for reelection ALLISON DINNER/AFP via Getty Images

The second segment, which makes up 35 percent of the electorate, is essentially part-populist or "mixed voters." In 2020, 45 percent of them voted for Biden. They are not as wedded to American exceptionalism and the notion of God-given liberty and freedom as true populists, but they still view the big 2022 issues the same: inflation, recession, crime, and uncontrolled immigration.

Even though two-thirds of these voters support abortion rights under similar parameters as Roe, they don't view abortion as a top three issue.

Both "populists" and "mixed voters" view immigration in part through the prism of rising crime rates; they want tougher border controls in large part because uncontrolled immigration is a major source of the fentanyl ravaging many of our communities.

They also support U.S. oil, natural gas, and nuclear production now to cut rising car and home energy costs as soon as possible. Similarly, as a recession beckons, they want to end our dependence on China to spur U.S. job creation, among other benefits.

On the other hand, just 31 percent of likely voters—the smallest of the three voter segments—are "anti-populists." This group resembles the Democratic base in many ways: They are also multi-racial, but they over-index as college-educated whites. They're slightly younger and more likely to be women, and almost none are Republicans. They are also the least likely to vote in 2022.

Anti-populists firmly reject the idea that America is exceptional among nations. They fervently believe COVID lockdown policies worked. They view environmental regulations as sacrosanct and want a complete focus on wind and solar energy to the exclusion of American oil, natural gas, and nuclear, even if these environmental policies cost them money.

This group does not believe there is a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, and emphatically rejects the notion that illegal immigration should be stopped. They rank crime as only the 10th most important issue facing the nation.

Put succinctly, the Democratic Party's priorities line up with less than one-third of the electorate—our "anti-populist" group. But most voters, 69 percent, are either fully or partially populist, and hold views that align with the 2022 Republican agenda.

This is not to say that Republicans should expect to win the popular vote this year by nearly 20-points, nor that all voters in the fully or partially populist groups are members of the GOP; they are not. However, this data makes it clear and apparent that the Democratic agenda is detrimentally out-of-touch with the American electorate. It also underscores how challenging it will be for Democrats to win with a majority coalition absent a major shift in the party's message and issue priorities.

Democrats used to be the party of the working middle-class. But in 2016 and 2020, Donald Trump carried voters without a college degree by roughly four-points, and Republicans have won this group in three of the last four congressional elections.

This movement of working middle-class voters toward the Republican Party explains why Hillary Clinton lost the presidency in 2016 and why Joe Biden barely defeated Donald Trump, a deeply unpopular incumbent, in Midwestern states in 2020.

It is also one of the main reasons why Democrats' midterm election prospects are so bleak this year, despite the extremist views of many individual GOP candidates and the Republican Party's lack of a positive message or concrete policy proposals.

To remain politically viable in 2024 and future elections, the Democratic Party needs to rededicate itself to core American populist values: addressing immediate concerns vis-à-vis the economy and crime, promoting individual advancement, and helping working middle-class voters get ahead.

Douglas Schoen is a Democratic pollster. Robert Green is a Pierrepont Consulting & Analytics principal.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.