The battle for working class voters continues, and it could decide the outcome of the 2024 election.
Last week, President Biden and former President Trump rushed to Michigan, where the United Auto Workers are on strike amid contract negotiations with GM, Ford and Stellantis, the company formerly known as Chrysler.
Biden joined striking workers in a picket line outside a GM parts facility, the first time an incumbent president has shown his support for organized labor.
“You saved the auto industry back in 2008,” he told UAW members through a bullhorn. “But now they are fine. … It’s time for them to step up for us.”
Trump did not visit the striking workers or endorse the UAW’s demands for higher wages. He gave a speech at a nonunion factory and accused Biden of hurting autoworkers by promoting electric vehicles.
“America’s workers, to put it very nicely, are having a hard time,” Trump said. “You can be loyal to American labor or you can be loyal to the environmental idiots, but you can’t be loyal to both.”
Biden disagrees, of course. He argues that the clean energy industry can and should create high-wage union jobs. But UAW leaders complained that most of the subsidies from Biden’s energy legislation flowed to non-union factories, and they did not endorse the president for reelection.
The battle for the hearts of autoworkers is a microcosm of a larger struggle for working-class voters, a category pollsters often define as voters without college degrees. They make up about 60% of the voters.
Working class voters, especially union members and their families, are the cornerstone of the Democratic Party. But over the past half-century, as Democrats have become more liberal, millions of white, college-educated voters have switched to the GOP and its conservative social policies — a phenomenon that political scientist who is a “class change.”
“Do you think we’re ever going to be in a situation where blue-collar workers are going to vote Republican?” the president worried members of the Democratic National Committee earlier this year. “Many of them believe that we have stopped treating (the) working class the way we used to.”
In 2016, Trump won the presidency in part by winning nearly two-thirds of white non-college voters, a key reason he won in former Democratic strongholds like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won only 28% of the electorate.
In 2020, Trump won 65% of the white working-class vote, but Biden bettered Clinton’s poor performance by winning 33%, according to a Pew Research Center study. That was enough to move Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania into the Democratic column.
So Biden doesn’t need to win a majority of non-college-educated voters to keep his job in 2024, he just needs to do as well as he did in 2020.
He especially needs to maintain his support of union members and their families, many of whom still vote Democratic. In 2020, Biden carried Michigan’s union households by a whopping 25-percentage-point margin, 62% to 37%.
That’s why Biden often reminds audiences that he considers himself “the most pro-union president in American history.”
Trump did not make that claim. During his four years as president, he implemented the traditional Republican pro-business agenda and appointed anti-union members to the National Labor Relations Board.
His appeal to working-class voters in Michigan last week was a rerun of themes he ran on in 2016 and 2020, both culturally and economically.
“I risked it all to defend the working class against the corrupt political class,” he said.
He promised to roll back Biden’s clean energy mandates, promote oil and gas drilling, and impose high tariffs on foreign goods — all of which, he argued, would be good for auto workers.
Biden, for all his history as a supporter of organized labor, has a tougher case to make.
After two years of high inflation, most voters feel they are worse off financially than they were under Trump. And they’re right: Census Bureau estimates suggest that real household income, which began falling in 2020, has yet to return to pre-pandemic highs.
Biden’s response is an array of economic stimulus, investment in infrastructure and clean energy, and policies to promote higher wages — a package he calls “Bidenomics.”
But even though real wages have grown faster than prices in recent months, most working-class families told pollsters they still don’t feel good.
Bidenomics is based on the hope that by this time next year, most Americans will notice that their paychecks are rising faster than their grocery bills, and give the president credit.
But some Democrats are worried.
“The term ‘Bidenomics’ seems perfectly designed to upset the voters instead of winning them over,” said Ruy Teixeira, a central democratic political scientist.
Better, he suggested, for Biden to focus his tone on the ways he is pushing businesses to raise wages, including federal regulations requiring overtime pay for many workers.
Either way, unless the economy starts to improve more dramatically, the 2024 election is likely to remain close. And the nominees of both parties – whoever they are – will spend a lot of time talking to blue-collar workers in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.