Last fall, Democrats pulled off significant victories across the industrial Midwest, reasserting power in a region that had become increasingly favorable to Republicans — but the party still faces stark and sometimes worsening challenges in largely white, working-class counties that will help decide the outcome of the next presidential election.
That is among the conclusions of a new, unsparing report from Democratic strategists on their party’s vulnerabilities and opportunities in towns and counties hit hard by deindustrialization in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In the 2016 election, Democrats faced staggering setbacks in many of these areas, but the party has worked to regain ground since.
“Our brand is pretty damaged in these places,” warns the report, a project of the nonprofit group American Family Voices, which is assessing blue-collar voters outside major metropolitan areas and refers to the places in the study as “Factory Towns.” “Voters are both cynical about what we are saying now, and unaware of all that Democrats have accomplished that will directly benefit them.”
But, the report adds, pointing to recent legislative achievements, “Democrats have their best opportunity to make progress in these counties in a generation.”
The report, which also highlights Republican branding problems, was written by the longtime Democratic strategist Mike Lux and draws on polling conducted in December by Lake Research Partners, helmed by Celinda Lake, a veteran party pollster.
It notes that President Biden — a Scranton, Pa., native who has long stressed his affinity for blue-collar voters — won in 2020 in part by reducing the margins of Democratic losses in some of these areas, while Democrats up and down the ballot notched a number of outright victories last year. But Democrats also had major disappointments in the region, like Wisconsin’s Senate race, and Iowa remains an especially bleak spot for the party.
Given that track record, the report argues for early organizing investments in these areas. It also acknowledges the difficulties of changing negative perceptions in a fractured and diminished news environment, and at an intensely polarized moment for the country.
Politics Across the United States
From the halls of government to the campaign trail, here’s a look at the political landscape in America.
Here’s a look at some key findings and recommendations:
Culture aside, the economy is the bigger problem for Democrats.
Republicans have sought to brand Democrats as extreme on cultural issues like policing and education. But according to this report, Democrats are more vulnerable on matters of spending, taxes, government waste and inflation.
While “working-class folks find urban and intellectual ‘wokeism’ annoying,” the report says, “economic issues are driving the problems of Democrats in non-metro working-class counties far more than the culture war.”
A Democratic economic message — focused on attacking corporate greed, investing in manufacturing in the United States and pursuing an economy that works for all rather than the “wealthy few” — tested better, in the Lake Research Partners polling, than a Republican message that claimed liberals were undermining “our way of life.”
A Republican message focused on the economy narrowly outperformed the Democratic message on that subject. But results varied by state, with voters in Michigan, for instance, being more receptive to the Democratic pitch than in other states, and notable warning signs for Democrats in Pennsylvania.
Mr. Lux wrote that “voters in these counties, including swing voters, independents, and even some Democrats, are viewing the economy along a much more Republican narrative than they were a year ago,” a sign that television ads that pummeled Mr. Biden over inflation during the midterms had broken through, even as inflation has now slowed slightly.
Both parties have branding problems.
Many voters studied in these “Factory Towns” are “deeply, profoundly cynical” about both political parties, the report found, with swing voters holding the impression that both Democrats and Republicans are “too extreme.”
The sharpest argument against Republicans, the polling found, was that “they are on the side of corporations and C.E.O.s and they work for the wealthy.”
Democrats, meantime, are seen as “as weak and ineffective, especially when it comes to economics,” the report said.
The data found that Democrats struggled with the perception that a Democratic economic plan “doesn’t exist or doesn’t help regular people’s own working families,” a claim that resonated with some base Democratic and independent voters.
Democrats do have economic plans, but voters don’t always know it.
Democrats can point to a long list of measures that they say are meant to improve Americans’ economic standing, including the Inflation Reduction Act and huge investments in U.S. chip-making efforts.
The challenge, the report said, is to ensure that voters know about those developments, and that they can connect the legislation to their daily lives.
“Most voters are not following national news or the details of the legislation, and many haven’t yet seen the impact on their lives,” the report said. “Working-class voters outside of the big metro areas are still leading pretty tough lives, so we have to balance the story of our success on policy with the recognition of those hard times.”
The report also urged Democrats to combine traditional economic populist messaging and policies with strong emphasis on support for small businesses, as well as unions.
“Most working-class folks very much think of small-business owners as part of the working class,” the report said. It added, “Democrats and progressive issue advocates should always talk about how much they care about small businesses doing well, and should be specific about the ways they want to help the small-business community.”
2024 looks competitive — and there’s early interest in DeSantis.
Early head-to-head presidential matchups between Mr. Biden and former President Donald J. Trump, and Mr. Biden and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, show a tight hypothetical race in these counties.
“A considerable number of voters here will have at least an initial tendency to vote for Trump even if they don’t like him all that well,” the report acknowledged.
Still, a close race at this point is notable given how much Democrats have struggled in some of these counties.
Perhaps more revealing are the favorability numbers. Just 39 percent of voters had a favorable view of Mr. Trump, while 56 percent had an unfavorable view. Mr. Biden’s overall numbers were better — 46 percent favorable to 52 percent unfavorable — though among voters with strong opinions, both men had weak numbers, and the ratings varied considerably by state.
There is keen interest in Mr. DeSantis, who is generally regarded as Mr. Trump’s strongest potential Republican rival even though he has not announced a presidential campaign and remains untested on the national stage.
He had a net positive favorability rating — 42 percent to 37 percent — and was “surprisingly well known, with only a fifth of voters having no impression of him,” the report said.