Get to Work, Democrats: Become the Jobs Party
Democrats Are Not the Party of Jobs
We may be at or near full employment, but there is also real economic anxiety afoot in many places, and people look to new or better jobs as a refuge. The nation has experienced 82 straight months of job growth, but it has not been distributed evenly throughout the country, and the salience of jobs in voters' minds does not ebb and flow with national economic indicators. In fact, voters have rated jobs as their top issue in recent polling, or second only to health care.1
The fact is that the Democratic Party faces a grave perception problem: voters do not believe it is the party of jobs. Pre- and post-election polls confirmed that Democrats trailed on the issue of jobs in 2016. In the lead-up to Election Day, Republicans led by six points on jobs. Even worse, a post-election poll put Republicans’ edge at 16 points on “creating more good-paying jobs in the U.S.,” while another looking at working-class whites gave Republicans a 35-point advantage on which party will “improve the economy and create jobs.”2
Observers of American politics over the last decade might assume that Democrats’ jobs deficit is an entrenched perception. But they would be wrong. Dating back to 2000, Democrats have led Republicans on the “which-party-is-better-on-jobs” poll question by an average of five points. In truth, this perception took shape during the 2010 midterm election—in which Republicans swept to power—and has existed in varying degrees since.
Which Party Voters View as Better on Jobs
This spring, Third Way commissioned two rounds of intensive online focus groups to explore perceptions of the Democratic Party brand among two critical constituencies: voters who supported Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016 (Obama-Trump voters) and Rising American Electorate voters (RAE voters). The defining message conveyed—by both sets of focus group participants—was that the Democratic Party is not the jobs party.
Participants came to this conclusion for three reasons. The first: they said Democrats are not looking out for the middle and working class and their interests. Rather, they viewed the Party as prioritizing the interests of the poor and, in some ways, the rich. Secondly, they intuitively viewed Democrats as anti-business, which in their minds meant anti-jobs as well. Finally, they said the Party’s focus on social issues—many of which they actually support—has come at the expense of attention to a superseding issue in their minds: jobs.
Just how much does Democrats’ jobs deficit matter in an electoral context? Start by thinking about the sheer number of voters it impacts. The U.S. private sector employs 124 million people, which is equivalent to the number of votes cast in the 2016 presidential election, minus a Georgia.3 The electoral consequences of being seen as indifferent about or hostile to these American workers’ jobs can be decisive.
Democrats’ recent failings on jobs must also be viewed in the context of President Trump’s obsessive focus on the issue. This contrast has accentuated Democrats’ jobs problem. House and Senate Democrats’ new Better Deal agenda could help the Party, particularly if they focus on more and better jobs. But any jobs message should be impassioned and unequivocal. If Better Jobs is lost among a muddle of ideas and messaging, it will be hard for the Party to close its jobs deficit—or its electoral one.
Both focus groups were comprised of specific universes of battleground-state voters. The first covered persuadable Obama-Trump voters, who were also primarily between the ages of 30–64 and had household incomes below $100,000. The second group, which was roughly comprised of Rising American Electorate (RAE) voters, included persuadable African American, Latino, and Millennial voters. If Democrats want to win elections across the country and up and down the ballot, they will need to appeal to both of these groups. These groups were not intended to mirror the entire electorate, but rather to dive deeply into two key voting groups of keen interest to Democrats who are pondering how to dig themselves out of an electoral hole. Global Strategy Group, a polling firm, conducted the online focus groups for Third Way from May 3rd through May 5th, 2017.
The group facilitators asked participants a range of questions about their perceptions of both political parties. Participants were not heavily prompted to elevate the jobs issue. In fact, only one question on job creation was included, and it was presented to participants on the third and final day of discussions. Instead, both groups identified the salience of this issue organically, and both groups brought up the three reasons highlighted in this report for why Democrats are not the jobs party.
What follows is a look at the reasons behind voters’ sentiment that Democrats are not the jobs party, as conveyed in their own words, as well as lessons the Party can learn from Trump on jobs. In full disclosure, some participants’ comments were offensive to the core, and these people may be true Trump believers who are simply lost to the Democratic Party. (To be clear, we do not condone their remarks in any way or imply that those particular voters must be part of a winning Democratic coalition moving forward.) But others, like the Trump triers who hesitantly backed him, may have just been angry, discouraged, or flat-out fed up with the status quo and motivated to cast a protest vote in a particular moment. That latter category fall on a continuum of gettable to not gettable for future Democratic candidates. Throughout the memo, we determined it was important to convey participants’ words in an unfiltered format—even where we found their words shocking or appalling.
Why Democrats Are No Longer the Party of Jobs
1. Voters feel the Party is not looking out for the middle and working class and their interests. Instead, it’s prioritizing the poor (and to some extent, the rich).
Among our participants, we found that middle- and working-class Americans don’t believe the Democratic Party is looking out for them and their primary interest of jobs. Rather, they see the Party as primarily focused on handouts for the poor and, to some extent, special breaks for the rich. Focus group participants were palpably angry about this perceived neglect. At times, this anger boiled over into vitriolic attacks on people they perceived as “others.” Their overriding sense of the Party can be boiled down to five words: Democrats are for somebody else.
Participants Identified Who Democrats Fight For
The root cause of voters’ anger is the political system they perceive as rewarding the poor and the rich. A December 2016 Gallup poll found that 67% of Americans viewed “big government” as the biggest threat to the future of the country—almost three times the 26% who singled out “big business.”4 This anti-government sentiment—directed at the seat of power in Washington, D.C.—was pervasive in our focus groups. It has resulted in a type of political populism that is much more potent and powerful than its economic cousin. But while voters are broadly angry at government and the system it's created, they lay the blame on Democrats more so than on Republicans. This is because they view Democrats as the party of government. This year, a Pew survey found that 61% of Americans believe the Democratic Party too often views government as the only solution to problems.5
The middle and working class’ sense of neglect has created deep feelings of resentment. They’re angry because they believe the system rewards everyone but them, and this anger manifests itself in vicious attitudes toward outgroups. Some participants in our focus groups were not shy to convey overtly racist, xenophobic, and homophobic attitudes. Both groups displayed this anger. Obama-Trump voters' reactions were often more visceral, but RAE voters also communicated a sense of abandonment by the Party.
Emphasizing the role of the system should not excuse these attacks. But it is important to recognize that many voters have latched onto this divisive political populism because they feel betrayed by the government’s priorities—there’s a sense that the virtuous link between hard work and getting ahead is slipping away. In a December 2016 poll, 61% of adults said hard-working people are struggling to maintain their standard of living.6 So when they see—or perceive—that the government is doling out handouts or people are “work[ing] the system,” it feels like an attack on the compact that by working hard you can earn your way to a better life.
Some participants also communicated resentment over special breaks for the rich, but there were fewer of these comments and they were less vitriolic in tone.
The Party cannot fix the perception that it is focusing on "others" at the expense of middle- and working-class Americans by doubling down on policies perceived as handouts. In fact, this approach would compound the problem. In the focus groups, participants’ anger was rooted in the belief that the government was taking from them and giving to others they deemed undeserving—for them, it’s an attack on the value of hard work. So rallying around proposals like free college or universal basic income just exacerbate this resentment. Effective policy solutions to bolster economic security are vital, but they must begin with job creation and be tethered to the values of hard work and earning your way that underscore America’s economic compact.
2. Voters intuitively view Democrats as anti-business.
By a 2.5-to-1 margin, Americans view the Republican Party as more supportive of business than the Democratic Party.7 This is hardly surprising, but rather than being an electoral benefit for Democrats, it is a problem because most voters instinctively link a strong business environment to job growth. It is true that voters want the government to crack down on business abuses and may look more unfavorably toward certain businesses or sectors than others, but a broad brushstroke approach that is uniformly anti-business does not match the worldview of most voters. In a May 2017 Gallup poll, respondents’ top three ideas for encouraging job growth all involved a healthy public-private relationship: keep manufacturing jobs in the U.S., reduce government regulation, and lower taxes.8 For the Democratic Party to fulfill the Better Jobs promise, they need a much more balanced approach to businesses of all sizes.
This was evident in the focus groups where, far from pillorying business, time and time again participants framed these entities as rational or sympathetic actors. Instead, they directed their ire at politicians for undercutting business and its perceived job-creation role.
Obama-Trump voters were more critical of Democrats’ attitudes toward business, but RAE voters also expressed frustration. Mark, an RAE voter, linked Democrats to businesses choosing to offshore jobs:
If Democrats do lean into attacks on business, the Party could exacerbate its jobs problem. Advancing the economic populism advocated by some on the left and amplified by a loud minority could further disaffect voters already wary about the Party being co-opted by those on the fringes.
Reforming Democrats’ anti-business image should not be equated with kowtowing to corporations. After all, there is no support on the left, or even among the voters in our study, for Trump proposals like rolling back Dodd-Frank. But Democrats should acknowledge that voters perceive business as a source of jobs, and there’s a balance to be found between holding business accountable and promoting pro-jobs policies that voters demand.
3. While many voters support Democrats on social causes, they want the Party to focus on jobs first.
Democrats Are Perceived As the Party of Social Issues
Focus group participants broadly resented the Democratic Party and the political system at large for perceived neglect. But on the issues, they were specifically upset because they felt the Party is prioritizing social issues over jobs. On the positive side, participants—both the Obama-Trump voters and the RAE voters—were generally supportive of Democrats’ social policy goals on issues like abortion and marriage for gay couples. Their reactions ranged from believing these matters are settled and people should move on to being fully supportive of progressive goals. On the negative side, there was a perception that too much overt focus on social issues—even on those where they agreed with Democrats—was taking time away from focusing on jobs.
It’s not totally surprising that Obama-Trump voters, a group that trended less diverse and more conservative than the electorate as a whole, would be eager to push past social issues in favor of jobs.9 But similar sentiments were shared by RAE voters, a bloc with vested interests in Democrats’ social goals.
Julie, an Obama-Trump voter, drew a causal link between Democrats’ focus on social issues and voters flipping from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016:
While participants expressed frustration with Democrats’ priorities, many simultaneously disagreed with Republicans’ retrograde social policies.
So it isn’t that these voters trusted or sided with Republicans more on social issues. It’s the perception that Democrats prioritize social issues above all else, which conveys the message that the Party is focused on everything except for what the people in our focus groups fundamentally relied on—a means to sustain themselves and their families. That is a real problem. And it’s a widely felt frustration, just as true among the younger and more diverse RAE voters as those who flipped from Obama to Trump. Democrats should refuse to turn back the clock on social progress, but also recognize that voters want to see a rebalancing of the Party’s priorities.
Lessons From Trump and Moving Forward
Trump is Unambigiously Pro-Jobs
In 2016, the Democratic Party and its ongoing jobs problem ran into a countervailing force in Donald Trump. One of his greatest strengths as a candidate was his recognition of the primacy of jobs in voters’ minds—both in terms of creating new jobs and bringing back old ones. Trump, in all his bombast, made it unmistakably clear that he cared about jobs, and voters rewarded him for it. Almost without fail, focus group participants in both groups identified the issue as Trump’s top priority. There’s a lesson in this for Democrats.
In retrospect, Democrats failed to recognize just how far they lagged behind Republicans on the economy and jobs, both in this most recent election and before it. And this deficit persists today. In a June 2017 NBC News poll, Republicans led Democrats by seven points on economic issues.10 In a separate poll of Obama-Trump voters from Global Strategy Group, Congressional Democrats trailed both Trump and Congressional Republicans on economic issues.11 Even among core Democratic constituencies, Hillary Clinton’s economic policies failed to resonate. Comparing polls from 2012 and 2016, 90% of African Americans felt Obama’s economic policies would be good for them, compared to 62% who felt the same about Clinton’s. Among Millennials, 57% felt Obama’s economic policies would be good for them, compared to only 38% for Clinton’s.12 Clearly, Democrats' economic and jobs problem extends beyond Obama-Trump voters; base supporters and the general public have lost faith in the Party as well. So the solutions must be similarly broad to persuade reticent Obama-Trump voters, bolster enthusiasm with RAE voters, and offer an overarching vision for economic growth and prosperity to the country.
These focus groups were not intended to mirror the entire electorate, but nevertheless participants elevated universal imperatives like jobs. The lesson that stands out from this research is clear: the Party needs to actively and impassionedly seek out the title of “the jobs party.” In House and Senate Democrats’ new Better Deal agenda , the focus on and promise of Better Jobs is essential. Hopefully, this shows that Democrats are coming to grips with the jobs tension that they have failed to reconcile in recent years. Even as the economy approaches full employment, there remains real economic anxiety, and people will always aspire to new and better job opportunities. Trump spoke to this—and voters responded. To rebuild the Party and regain the power to enact their priorities, Democrats need to craft a broad path that’s inclusive of a diverse coalition and sustainable across election cycles. Reclaiming its status as the party of jobs is a unifying way to do just that.