When Joe Biden visited this corner of southwestern Pennsylvania in the final weeks before the election, his goal wasn’t to win it so much as to show the area’s overwhelmingly white working-class electorate that his party was at least willing to try.
“A lot of white, working-class Democrats thought we forgot them,” Biden said after touring a union training facility during a late September swing through Westmoreland County. “I get their sense of being left behind.”
Democrats have offered paeans like that since President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered the New Deal and cemented an alliance with working-class voters. That bond was rooted in the notion that the Democrats’ policies would improves workers’ lives.
But that relationship has steadily frayed, with working-class voters now casting Democrats as the party of cultural elites who talk down to them and reject their values. Such resentment has even driven workers to vote against their seeming economic self-interest, given that GOP tax policy is often geared toward the well-to-do and business.
Now Biden and his party are hoping that by muscling through passage of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief and economic stimulus bill — with benefits heavily weighted toward lower- and middle-income Americans — they can win back at least a larger share of working-class voters.
Democrats are banking on direct payments of $1,400 to most Americans under the COVID-19 law as a strong counter to that criticism. The package also dramatically expands tax credits for families with children, bolsters unemployment benefits, reduces taxes on student loan debt and lowers costs of the Obama-era health law’s coverage.
Ed Rendell, a former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, said the legislation won’t singlehandedly solve the party’s problems with working-class voters but is “a good first mile down the road.”
By some estimates, the law could reduce the nation’s poverty rate by one-third. That may have an outsize impact on Westmoreland County, whose under-65 population receives more federal disability benefits than the national average and where less than one-third of residents have a college degree, according to federal estimates.
The town of Jeannette used to boast of being the “Glass Capital of the World,” but nearly all of those factories are long gone. A nearby Volkswagen plant shuttered in 1988, wiping out 2,500 jobs.
But the strong economic incentives in the relief bill are colliding with the structural support here for former President Donald Trump. Trump 2020 yard signs and flags — often carefully preserved against winter snows — still line the hilly roadsides beyond the hulking husks of the abandoned bottle works. The Democratic county sheriff became a Republican last summer, saying his old party wasn’t supporting law enforcement strongly enough during demonstrations that swept the country over police brutality and racism.
Like Biden, Trump campaigned in Westmoreland County, and he won the county by nearly 30 percentage points. But Biden got about 11,000 more votes here than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. That’s significant given that Biden won Pennsylvania by only about 80,500 votes.
Working-class generally denotes people without college degrees who have lower wage jobs. It also can mean better educated, better paid middle-class earners who don’t like defining themselves as rich or poor. Trump won 62% of white voters without a college degree in November, according to AP VoteCast, a nationwide survey of the electorate.
During the campaign, Biden tried to contrast what he called the working family sensitivities of his birth city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, with Trump’s Fifth Avenue, big city values. Biden also has pledged to be ” the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.”