How to get working class whites to vote in their own economic interest

“They vote against their own interests!”

This is a repeated statement expressing the frustration of liberals over the willingness of poor and working class white voters to support conservative Republican candidates committed to cutting the very programs they rely upon. I have heard this statement many times in my life as a political activist. It completely confounded many commentators and analysts in the wake of President Trump’s election. Just today, Thomas Edsall wrote a column in the The New York Times trying to explain this conundrum.

Certainly, race is a big part of the answer. It is easy for us to feel that people who look or speak differently from us are undeserving of government support. But a big part of the problem is that we have not personalized the risk each individual faces by voting against their own economic interests. In the abstract, it’s easy to say that we shouldn’t be giving away the store to minorities or immigrants. But if this message is challenged by an opposing message that “your vote will cost you $x”, designed with some specificity, people’s self-interest will overcome their in-group/out-group bias.

An example of this comes from the decline of unions. A study by James Feigenbaum of Boston University, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez of Columbia, and Vanessa Williamson of the The Brookings Institution found that Democratic candidates have fared far worse in right-to-work counties than in comparable union rights counties. Why is this the case? After all, unions tend to represent the very people who vote against their own economic interests in other circumstances. The reason is that the unions personalize the risk these people face with their vote. They make it clear that “you may not like certain minorities, but if you vote this way, you will be personally economically hurt in this way.” This very direct personal economic message overcomes the generalized anger toward other groups.

In the past, campaigns were hampered in their efforts at this kind of micro-targeting due to the cost of personalizing messages. Campaigns did try door-to-door efforts, phone banks, or other techniques to identify potential undecided voters and their issue of interest. The problem is that people are notoriously hesitant to reveal what really motivates them to vote — for example, they generally don’t want to admit they have an animus toward minorities — and they might not even know. Indeed, they might feel an animus toward minorities and would admit it, but don’t realize that this animus would be overcome at fear of their own potential economic loss. What’s more is that such micro-targeting efforts were extremely expensive, and would be quickly overcome by mass communication efforts through the mail or on television.

Technology has changed everything. Now we can use data mining to identify people with their real personal economic concerns. Then, with electronic communication, social media, or personalized direct mail made possible by the revolution in desk-top publishing, we can deliver a very personal message to each voter making it clear to them what they stand to lose if they vote the wrong way.

There are several issues that could form the basis of such appeals. The recent health care debate has shown the power of this issue to working class voters. I would also suspect that making marijuana legal would be a very popular argument among many working class white constituencies. At a minimum, liberal candidates could use the Trump administration’s attack on medical marijuana to remind those who rely upon it that they stand to lose their medicine if they vote the wrong way. Public records will generally not reveal who is relying upon medical marijuana, but data mining could direct such communication efforts.

The point is that times have changed. Kevin Roose and Sheera Frenkel reported in The New York Times that 4500 tech workers from Tech For Campaigns are working to help Democratic candidates improve their technology. Perhaps this is one area where they can help.

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Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

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