New Study: Where Are All the Left Populists?

Democrats are losing working-class votes. A new study from Jacobin, ASU’s Center for Work and Democracy, and the Center for Working-Class Politics shows how few Democratic Party candidates use populist rhetoric, propose progressive economic policies, or come from working-class backgrounds.

Voters listen to a campaign speech at Virginia Highlands Park on October 26, 2021, in Arlington, Virginia. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

The political left is struggling with working-class voters around the world. In the United States, the Democratic Party has lost more of its support in election after election since 2012. Is there anything that can be done to stop the bleeding or even reverse the trend?

In 2023, with Jacobin and YouGov, the Center for Working-Class Politics (CWCP) published Trump’s Kryptonite, a study that sought to provide some answers to this basic question. We designed a unique survey experiment that asked participants to choose between hypothetical pairs of candidates. We found that candidates who deployed populist messaging, who advocated bold progressive economic policies, and who came from working-class backgrounds were more likely to win support among working-class voters.

With these findings in mind, we next sought to investigate the state of such candidates in the real world today: Who are the working-class champions, where are they running, and how are they performing? To answer these questions, the CWCP, in collaboration with the Center for Work and Democracy at Arizona State University and Jacobin magazine, has collected and analyzed data on Democratic candidates in the 2022 midterms.

With the help of a team of research assistants, we built a novel, comprehensive dataset on the 966 candidates who ran in Democratic primaries and general elections for the House and Senate in 2022. Using text from candidates’ campaign websites, we documented their campaign rhetoric, policy platforms, demographic characteristics, and class backgrounds. We were thus able to identify, among other things, candidates who our past research suggests would be effective at winning working-class voters: those who employed populist rhetoric, proposed progressive economic policies, or held working-class occupations prior to their political careers.

More than anything else, our findings reveal just how few Democratic candidates actually meet these criteria. Despite the appeal of forceful, anti–economic elite messaging to the demographics that Democrats desperately need to reach — such as working-class and rural voters — few Democrats actually employ this kind of messaging. Even fewer run on bold progressive economic policies such as raising the minimum wage or a jobs guarantee. Finally, working-class candidates were extremely rare — 2 percent to 6 percent of candidates, depending on the measure — and those who did run were typically marginal primary candidates or ran Hail Mary general election campaigns in deep-red districts.

How did progressives, populists, and working-class candidates fare when they did run? In short, quite well. Candidates who used economic populist rhetoric won higher vote shares in general elections, especially in highly working-class districts, rural and small-town districts, and districts where the majority were white and not college educated. We also find that Democratic candidates running on economically progressive policies were more successful overall than other candidates, especially in majority-white, non-college-educated districts.

Because there were so few truly working-class candidates — defined as those who had only worked in working-class jobs before entering politics — it is difficult to generalize about their characteristics or electoral outcomes. That said, if we broaden our attention to candidates with any prior experience in working-class jobs, we see that, when such candidates made it through their primary elections, they performed just as well as other candidates in their generals.

Unfortunately, however, they did much worse than other candidates in the primary stage, perhaps because candidates with working-class experience are more likely to face financial and organizational barriers to running, especially early on. We also find, in line with other research, that candidates with working-class experience were more likely than others to raise up working-class people or champion their issues. All this suggests Democrats face little downside from running more working-class candidates in general elections, and a large potential upside.

In a final analysis, we test whether either of these characteristics — campaign messaging or working-class background — exhibits a strong association with a candidate’s election outcome. To do this, we run a series of regressions that control for a variety of important electoral factors. One result that comes through clearly is that employing rhetoric that attacks economic elites — one of the main components of economic populism — is strongly associated with a higher vote share in highly working-class districts.

Some of Our Key Takeaways

Less than 30% of Democrats emphasized the need for more high-quality jobs. Less than 5% campaigned on bold progressive economic policies to help workers, such as raising the minimum wage or a jobs guarantee. Despite polling that demonstrates the popularity of these progressive economic policies across the ideological spectrum, and especially among working-class voters, most Democratic candidates did not focus their campaigns on these issues.

Almost no candidates campaigned on polarizing cultural rhetoric. Despite the popular association of progressive politicians with such causes and slogans, Democratic candidates overwhelmingly avoided defending diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, critical race theory in schools, and the like. They also avoided terms often associated with the party’s progressive wing.

Few candidates campaigned on anti-elite rhetoric. Less than 20% of candidates employed economic populist talking points targeting large corporations, billionaires, or Wall Street price gouging.

Economic populists performed especially well in districts with majority-white, non-college-educated populations and in highly working-class districts. Their average vote shares were, respectively, 12.3 and 6.4 percentage points higher than other candidates’ in such districts. Economic populists also performed better than other candidates in rural and small-town districts, where their average vote share was 4.7 percentage points higher.Despite evidence showing that they are particularly appealing to working-class voters, working-class candidates were vanishingly rare. Only 2.3% of Democratic candidates worked exclusively in blue-collar jobs before entering politics. If we also include pink-collar jobs such as teachers and nurses, this figure is 5.9%.

When they made it to the general election, candidates with working-class experience performed about as well as other candidates. The small group of candidates with primarily working-class occupational backgrounds who made it to the general election performed poorly, largely because almost all competed in deep-red districts.

You can read the full report here.