REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

From the Center

Editor's Note: A previous version of this column said Trump addressed "striking autoworkers." In fact, he was speaking to a group that included many non-union workers. We've updated the column, and we regret the error.

Last Wednesday night, seven Republican candidates gathered at the Reagan Presidential Library for their second debate. But the most important statement from the evening was not one of Ron DeSantis’ and Chris Christie’s harsh attacks on Donald Trump or Nicki Haley’s and Mike Pence’s equally putative dismissals of Trump stand-in Vivek Ramaswamy. The real news was not their disagreements over Ukraine and China, over immigration or abortion. The most telling soundbite came from two thousand miles away, where absent frontrunner Trump was in Detroit speaking to a group of autoworkers.

The likely Republican nominee told these workers that the Biden Administration’s emphasis on electric vehicles and other forms of alternative energy was the true cause of the industry's problems. If they helped return him to the White House, Trump pledged to prioritize the needs of the traditional auto industry and to emphasize fossil fuel production and use to ensure the vehicles they were assembling would continue to drive the domestic market. But he also used the strike and the EV debate to make a broader populist argument that has been effective for him in the past.

“The Wall Street predators, the Chinese cheaters and the corrupt politicians have hurt you,” Trump said. “I will make you better. For years, foreign nations have looted and plundered your hopes, your dreams and your heritage, and now they’re going to pay for what they have stolen and what they have done to you, my friends.”

That type of class warfare language has traditionally come from progressive Democrats, but Trump recognized during his successful 2016 campaign that he could combine that type of language with a cultural conservatism that resonated greatly with the white working-class voters who helped him win Rust Belt states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. 

Joe Biden won back enough of these voters in 2020 to win back the White House. He defeated Trump among union members by roughly twice the margin as Clinton, and also made inroads among non-union workers. But working class-voters have soured on Biden since then, giving him especially low marks on economic issues, to the point where Trump is now realizing some gains among blue-collar Latino and black male voters. But the white working class remains the key swing vote in next year’s elections.

Democrats are optimistic that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade will help them as much in 2024 as was the case in last year’s midterm elections. They may be right, although polling shows that the issue is most effective with female voters. But while Biden’s vulnerabilities on the economy are most pronounced among young men, who are more likely to be struggling in the face of continued high prices, voter concerns about inflation touch every corner of the electorate.

Not surprisingly, Trump understands the opportunity this presents him to reclaim those swing voters next year. And unlike the first GOP debate, which he skipped to appear on a Tucker Carlson podcast, his visit with autoworkers was a savvy decision that gave him an ideal platform to talk directly to these disillusioned voters. His massive lead in primary polls gives Trump the opportunity to shift to a general election message months before the first primary votes are cast. But this is a message that also resonates with the new Republican Party base, so Trump is not harming himself with primary voters by taking this approach.

Biden recognizes how hard he will need to fight for the working class vote. Earlier in the week, he became the first U.S. president in over a century to walk a picket line. And he has intensified his career-long cultivation of a “Union Joe” persona that has made him a reliable ally of organized labor since his first days in political office over half a century ago. These credentials helped him become the Democratic nominee in 2000 over liberal favorites like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But unless something dramatic happens, his blue-collar bona fides will be put to a much greater test next year.

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Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).

Image Credit: REUTERS/Rebecca Cook