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Democrats aim to reclaim the working class vote

February 19, 2017 at 3:33 PM EDT
President Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, in part, by capturing the white working class vote in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania that previously voted for Democratic candidates. Now, some Democrats are trying to rebuild their base in blue-collar neighborhoods like those in northeast Philadelphia. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield reports.

By Mori Rothman and Yasmeen Qureshi

JEFF GREENFIELD: On a Sunday in February, more than a hundred Democrats crowd into a home in the Philadelphia suburbs to listen to their Congressman talk about the state of their party and the nation.

40-year-old Brendan Boyle is in his second term representing northeast Philadelphia and suburban Montgomery County.

It’s something of a political family affair. Brendan’s younger brother, Kevin, is a 37-year-old State Representative in his fourth term.

If you’re looking for what’s troubling Democrats, this is a good place to start: Mayfair. Not the tony London neighborhood, but northeastern Philadelphia, a working class neighborhood with a tradition of big pluralities for Democrats, a tradition that was broken last fall.

Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama easily won the Mayfair neighborhood. But Hillary Clinton carried it by a lot less, which was one factor in her narrow loss in Pennsylvania.

KEVIN BOYLE: Hillary didn’t really sort of offer any economic plan that she really hammered home. Donald Trump was talking about bringing back industrial jobs to blue collar America and that’s what people cared about in my area.

BRENDAN BOYLE: There is a real disconnect within the Democratic Party between the elites who make the decisions and the vast majority of people who are regular Democratic voters, and what the elites care about versus what most people here in Philadelphia who are casting Democratic ballots care about.

KEVIN BOYLE: The hardcore social left are saying we can’t reach out to white working class voters, because somehow that would be racist. I think that is absolutely crazy to say that, because a progressive economic platform could unify workers, it could unify white workers with Latino workers, with African American workers, with Asian workers. Because at the end of the day what will drive the Democratic Party back into the majority is when Joe Smith in northeast Philadelphia, who voted for Barack Obama twice but then voted for Donald Trump in this last election, when he makes his determination as to who he’s going to vote for, to me it always comes down to economics.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Glenn Clark is one of those Obama voters who went for Trump. He’s a longtime firefighter and the co-owner of this bar, Pub 36.

GLENN CLARKE: This is working class neighborhood, blue collar, more or less city employees.

JEFF GREENFIELD: So you’re talking cops, firefighters, civil servants.


JEFF GREENFIELD: Add a good number of construction and factory workers, and you have a neighborhood, where, like many around the country, a dramatic loss of votes cost the Democrats dearly.

So explain to me why a Democrat from a blue collar Philadelphia neighborhood voted for Donald Trump?

GLENN CLARKE: Served in the Navy, could not support Hillary, because of Benghazi, didn’t trust her. Also don’t trust a lot of the politicians today. Donald Trump has four years as a non-politician to make a difference.

JEFF GREENFIELD: For Brendan and Kevin Boyle, Trump’s showing is a political threat and a personal wound.

BRENDAN BOYLE: Our dad came as an immigrant from Ireland when he was 19. He spent a lot of time cutting lawns and trying to get into a union. Eventually he was able to do that, was a warehouseman for Acme Markets for 25 years.

JEFF GREENFIELD: That that kind of security of union jobs and the kind of comfort that brought, that’s not around much anymore much less, much less around. Is that an accurate perception?

BRENDAN BOYLE: Yes, that’s completely accurate. Actually people feel more anxious than ever before and even worse than that is they’re really questioning whether the American dream still exists.

JEFF GREENFIELD: One of the symbols of the jobs that aren’t around anymore is the Nabisco plant

KEVIN BOYLE: You used to actually be able to smell the cookies being made where we’re sitting right now, we were that close.

BRENDAN BOYLE: So that plant existed for generations and was profitable. For a company that was profitable, still employed 320 people, and these were not minimum wage jobs. These were good family sustaining jobs. Well, it turns out Nabisco ends up getting bought by a different company. They decide that they’re going to layoff completely close the plant even though it’s profitable, because they’re building a brand new one in Monterrey, Mexico, where they can employ people for far less.

JEFF GREENFIELD: And which presidential candidate called out Nabisco for closing multiple plants?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Nabisco closes a plant, they just announced a couple of days ago, in Chicago, and they’re moving the plant to Mexico!

JEFF GREENFIELD: To help reestablish the party’s connection with working class voters. Brendan started the Blue Collar Caucus in Washington, now with 26 members, to push for higher wages and new manufacturing jobs.

HOLLY OTTERBEIN: They rail against trade deals, they have proposed bills that would make college free for students that get at least a 3.0 GPA

JEFF GREENFIELD: Holly Otterbein profiled the Boyle brothers for Philadelphia Magazine.

HOLLY OTTERBEIN: At the same time, there are parts of the Boyle brother’s agenda that disappoints progressives in the party. In the past, Brendan has voted for pro-life legislation, although now he’s been endorsed by Planned Parenthood and has kind of changed his mind on that issue. So that raises the question that I think some progressives in the party have, which is that ‘If we try to go more aggressively for the white working class, do we have to sacrifice these things that are very important to the party?’ But a lot of Democrats are not convinced the party can or should rebuild its strength with the white working class. At last year’s national convention in Philadelphia, the party was more ethnically diverse than ever before, and social issues like abortion, gay rights, and gun control were front and center.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Joe DeFelice chairs Philadelphia’s Republican Party.

JOE DEFELICE: Trump just found a way to connect with them, and he was saying things that they believed in. And it’s strange to think right that a billionaire from New York City can connect with, you know, working class people in northeast Philadelphia. I mean being from New York, spending time in Philadelphia. He understands the neighborhoods, understands the people here.

JEFF GREENFIELD: DeFelice says the leftward drift of Democrats helped push working class voters into Trump’s camp.

JOE DEFELICE: Look, I’m not going to tell them how to do their jobs, I’m a, I’m actually happy that they’re going further and further to the left, makes my job a little bit easier // But if they continue to push like some of these leftist policies with regards to immigration or whatever, I think you know, we’re going to continue to keep those people.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Which is why the Boyles say Democrats need to be open to more moderate approaches on social issues.

BRENDAN BOYLE: We can’t end up becoming the worst caricature that talk radio on the right says we are.

KEVIN BOYLE: I don’t think there’s any question that the Democratic Party is a pro-choice party, and we’ll always support a woman’s right to choose, and it’s part of our party platform and should certainly stay that way. With that said, in Appalachia, the areas where Donald Trump was winning two to one, if we were running, or if we were putting litmus tests on the sort of candidates that we were recruiting. I think we’d find it very challenging to keep those seats or to win those seats.

BRENDAN BOYLE: Now, I’m clearly for stronger gun regulations. I sat in, participated in the sit-in with John Lewis on the House floor for 25 hours after the Orlando massacre, because I feel so strongly about the gun issue. That said, if we have that as a litmus test, we’re already in the deepest minority since 1928, we’ll be even further in the minority.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Walking that tightrope is no easy challenge, especially when voters like Glenn Clarke see a potential champion in President Trump.

GLENN CLARKE: He spoke of jobs. He spoke of safety, security. He wants to make America great again. And anybody that’s hoping that he fails can’t truly call themselves an American.

JEFF GREENFIELD: So how do you convince skeptical white working class folks that, that they really ought to take this to heart.

KEVIN BOYLE: I think it’s about authenticity. When we’re the party of the little guy, and I know that sounds simplistic, but when people internalize that, I think that we do much better in elections, and that’s what we have to be true to.

BRENDAN BOYLE: I really believe our party is at its best when we’re the Robert Kennedy coalition, that we are the party of blue collar workers, of all races, of all backgrounds, that we are the party of those who were left out and deeply believe in the American dream and want to achieve it. That is who the Democratic Party is in our soul, that is the best to win elections, but it’s also the best to govern. If we’re going to achieve progress in these areas, we need to it needs to be everyone and that includes white working class voters.