In 2016, the Democrats had a great chance to hold the White House and take the Senate, and they blew it. One of many ways they blew it was their abysmal showing among white voters without a college degree. Hillary Clinton lost that demographic group by almost 40 points, which is 14 points worse than Barack Obama did in 2012.
I come from a white working-class background. I’ve spent most of my professional life covering politics here in deep-red Georgia. And if Democrats aren’t reaping many votes from that group, it’s in part because they abandoned both their message and that audience.
So here’s a few thoughts on how to change that:
1.) If you wait until the campaign season to start outreach to these voters, forget it. In the overheated, increasingly tribalistic atmosphere of an election, trying to change minds or alter loyalties is all but hopeless. So take some of the enormous resources expended in campaigns and invest them much earlier, as in right now, in a sustained, issue-driven outreach that speaks to real needs and real problems.
2.) You had a message, but you let Donald Trump steal it from you. Take it back, then beat him about the head with it, figuratively speaking, because he more than deserves it.
Trump won because he didn’t shy from engaging in what Republicans in any other year would decry as class warfare. He raged against the elites, he promised to defend the little guy against a system that is rigged against him. He promised to defend social programs and take on Wall Street. But now that he is in office, he has done the exact opposite. The very Wall Street insiders whom he used to attack have now been handed control of the U.S. economy. The fat cats are getting fatter. Goldman Sachs stock is up $70 a share since Election Day, because he is giving them all they could ever dream of getting.
So tell people that, now, while they can watch it taking place. Tell these voters that Trump and other Republicans are taking their health insurance away so they can finance tax cuts for the rich, because that’s exactly what they’re doing. Explain how the refusal to expand Medicaid has put rural hospitals out of business and forced doctors to relocate to larger communities where they can actually get paid. Remind them of the meth and opiate epidemics ravaging their towns, and the fact that Medicaid could help pay for the drug treatment programs that might save their child’s life.
Remind them as well that Medicaid pays the bill for two-thirds of the elderly in long-term care in Georgia. Ask them to imagine their lives if Medicare and Social Security are privatized. On trade, remind them that Mexico and China are two of our biggest export markets for agricultural products, and that a trade war will gut rural economies.
3.) These voters are not going to come to you looking for information, not in this divisive political climate. If they’ve retreated into their own little information bubbles, follow them there. You can buy your way into their bubble, and you can do so pretty cheaply. As the old saying goes, put the hay where the cows can reach it.
Buy ads on the likes of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and other talk-radio formats in rural and small-town markets; buy time on Fox News in small cable systems. Advertise on county music stations and Christian stations, and if you do so, honor your audience.
You cannot reap what you never attempt to sow.
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