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Does either party really want the white working class?

Modes of thought

So far, neither the Republican nor Democratic establishments have fully embraced the working class voters in the Trump and Sanders campaigns. But the GOP appears to have more at stake. 

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    Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves to supporters after speaking at a campaign rally in Mid-Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Sunday.
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Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders appear to have ignited a working class revolution among white voters, inspiring huge rallies of people on the right and the left who feel abandoned by “the system.”

Regardless of what happens in New York’s primary Tuesday, their revolutions show no sign of diminishing. Yet only one of the parties has made any significant move toward appeasing these voters.

Ironically, it’s the party that might need them less.

Despite having built a strong Democratic coalition of minority and women voters, Hillary Clinton has pivoted to the left on trade, and more recently, on the $15 minimum wage to appeal to Senator Sanders’ supporters.

Many Republicans, by contrast, are deep in #NeverTrump mode, coalescing around a candidate they do not like – Ted Cruz – in part to prevent Mr. Trump’s voters from dragging the party toward a more populist stance on issues from trade to entitlements.

Though the white working class has never been smaller as a share of the electorate, it is a powerful bloc – as this topsy-turvy election attests. Political observers say that parties ignore lower-wage white voters at their peril.

That is particularly true for Republicans. The two lead candidates have essentially doubled down on their overwhelmingly white voter base in this election – openly antagonizing Latinos, for example. Without Trump’s voters, the Republican Party faces mounting problems, some say.

The parties “are going to have to pay attention,” says Ronald Keith Gaddie, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma.

Republicans talk about expanding their reach, but until they do, they can’t afford defections. Democrats, meanwhile, need the young whites who are turning out for Sanders, though their diverse base cushions them.

“The Republicans have betted all on getting as many white votes as possible, and the Democrats have benefitted by getting as many Americans as possible,” Professor Gaddie says. If Democrats could bump the share of the young white vote up to 50 percent from the traditional 40 to 42 percent nationally, he says, “the Republican party ends up in the wilderness.”

GOP's views of Trump voters

While Republicans may have the most at stake, they aren't necessarily likely to embrace the frustrated Trump voter beyond this year’s campaign, according to interviews with observers and Republicans.

For one thing, it’s possible to dismiss Trump as a flash-in-the-pan celebrity who runs on blunt speech rather than political networking.

“If Trump loses the nomination or the general election, it doesn’t seem like he’s really leaving a movement behind. Trump is basically a cult of personality,” says Kyle Kondik, political analyst and managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

For proof, GOP pollsters point to the April 5 Wisconsin primary, where Senator Cruz’s highly organized campaign beat Trump on white males, on noncollege degrees, on lower incomes, and on issues where the economy and jobs were the top concern – all Trump strengths.

And even if Trump were to win the presidency, he would have a hard time getting establishment and tea party type conservatives behind his positions. His preferences for keeping Social Security untouched and scuttling trade deals, and his his talk of closing tax "loopholes for the very rich and special interests" – all are apostasy to most Republicans in Congress.

Still, it’s not as if Republicans don’t recognize that the GOP has overlooked the working class. “You have to give Trump credit for identifying a target that’s ripe for a hostile takeover,” says Sen. Ben Sasse (R) of Nebraska, who shook the party by announcing he would neither vote for Trump if he won the nomination nor for Hillary Clinton, but would seek out a third candidate.

The freshman senator, backed by the tea party, says too many people associate the GOP with divisiveness, negativity, and as a party of the rich. Yes, he cares about tax policy, “but the marginal tax rates of the top 1 percent of wage earners – that’s not what gets me out of bed in the morning,” he said in an interview last month.

Many Republicans believe that the answer to Trump is a return to the aspirational message of the Ronald Reagan years. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin is preparing a positive, five-point agenda that he hopes to roll out in advance of the GOP convention in July. It includes an antipoverty plank.

The way to appeal to Trump voters “is not vitriol and anger,” says Whit Ayers, the pollster for former GOP presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. “It has to be an entire array of policies,” such as expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit to middle class families with children and worker retraining.

Whether Republicans could actually agree on policies aimed at Trump voters is another matter entirely. 

Democrats' 'new working class'

On the Democratic side, analysts say lower-income whites might also be overlooked if Hillary Clinton wins the nomination and presidency.

There is “no love lost” between organized labor and the Clintons, says Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. Industrial workers remember the stagnant wages and factories that closed under the North American Free Trade Agreement during the Bill Clinton years.

At the same time, Democrats are focused on “the new working class,” as Democratic researcher and analyst Tamara Draut calls it in her new book, “Sleeping Giant.” This group is made up mostly of females and minorities. It is making its voice heard through movements such as the “Fight for $15” minimum wage and unionization, “Black Lives Matter,” and “Dreamers” representing young undocumented immigrants.

Still, Sanders and his followers have had an influence on the “establishment” – most notably in Mrs. Clinton’s leftward shift.

But the difference in the Clinton and Sanders positions is not as wide as the chasm between Trump and his GOP competitors. And general Democratic policy points – such as higher minimum wage, paid sick leave, equal pay for women, and relief for student debt – would help the white working class, too.

“Even if Sanders doesn’t win, he has pushed the entire Democratic party – and even the Republican party – to the point where they have to talk about wages and economics,” says Professor Bronfenbrenner.

Whether a President Clinton would heed the working class after November, she says, would depend on whether voters can stay mobilized. “It will really be up to them.” 

That truism holds equally for Republicans.

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