Throughout his political career, President Joe Biden has unfailingly presented himself as a product – and champion – of the middle class.
As president, he has relentlessly touted his economic plan as a “blue-collar blueprint” to rebuild America and highlighted the number of new jobs tied to his signature policy initiatives that do not require a four-year college degree.
“When the last guy was here, he looked at the world from Park Avenue,” Biden told a union audience on Labor Day earlier this month in reference to his predecessor, former President Donald Trump. “Well, I look at it from Scranton, Pennsylvania. I look at it from Claymont, Delaware.”
But even as Biden stresses such arguments, a combination of opportunity and vulnerability may be pushing him in 2024 toward less reliance on blue-collar voters and greater dependence on better-educated and more affluent voters, particularly in a possible rematch with Trump.
Biden’s opportunities with upscale voters are widening because polls show that, compared to working-class voters, they are more likely to view Trump as a threat to American democracy, as well as more likely to support abortion rights. Simultaneously, Biden’s position with working-class voters is eroding largely because they are expressing the most frustration and strain over the economy and inflation.
Biden has some important assets in trying to recapture support from working-class voters, including a moderating trend in inflation, increasingly visible effects of the investments triggered by the trio of big laws he passed in his first two years, and a big campaign budget to saturate the handful of swing states with television advertising burnishing his economic record.
But so long as daily necessities in the fall of 2024 cost more than they did when Biden took office – a highly likely outcome – he faces the probability that most Americans, especially those operating on limited incomes, will remain discontent with his economic leadership. If there is a winning coalition for a second Biden term, it may rely on convincing voters who don’t believe the president has delivered for their interests to vote for him anyway because Trump (or another GOP nominee) represents an even greater threat to their values. And that dynamic, almost inevitably, could tilt Biden’s coalition even further toward upscale voters.
In the 2020 election, Biden ran several percentage points better than Hillary Clinton did in 2016 among voters with at least a four-year college education and carried a solid majority of them, according to each of the three data sources cited most often about the results: the exit polls conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of media organizations including CNN, the “validated voters” study by the Pew Research Center, and the estimates by Catalist, a Democratic targeting firm, based on analysis of voter records.
That advantage among better-educated voters was enough for Biden to overcome Trump’s narrow edge among all voters without a college degree, according to all three sources. Generally, the analyses showed Biden in 2020 slightly gaining compared to 2016 among White voters without a four-year college degree (though Trump still won them decisively) and Trump gaining somewhat among non-White voters without a college degree (though Biden still carried them decisively).
Compared to his vote share in 2020, Biden’s standing today is weaker among almost every key group in the electorate. But his numbers are especially bleak among voters with less education. In the latest CNN national poll conducted by SSRS, only about one-third of all adults without a degree (and only one-fourth of non-college White adults) said they approved of his job performance as president. Among college-educated adults, Biden’s standing was much more respectable: just over half of them approved of his performance (including just under half of the college-plus Whites.)
The two biggest headwinds confronting Biden, as I’ve written, are doubts that he’s too old for the job, and unhappiness over the economy, particularly inflation. The concern about Biden’s age largely transcends the educational divide: in the new CNN poll, more than 7 in 10 adults with and without a four-year degree said they do not believe he has the “stamina and sharpness to serve effectively as president.”
But, not surprisingly, frustration over high prices is especially acute among voters with fewer resources and less financial cushion, which generally include those with less education. “Nobody likes spending more, but the degree to which you can absorb inflation, those at the higher end of the economic scale have less difficulty doing so,” said Democratic pollster Jay Campbell, who studies economic attitudes as part of a bipartisan team that conducts surveys for CNBC.
A recent national Economist/YouGov survey quantified Campbell’s point. In the survey, the share of adults earning less than $50,000 annually who said inflation has had “a lot” of impact on their finances was double the share who said it had only “a little” effect; but among those earning $100,000 annually or more, the share who said it had only “a little” impact was nearly as large as those who said it was having “a lot.”
Biden’s ads are emphasizing the slowdown in inflation over recent months. But as Campbell points out, moderating inflation only means prices are rising less quickly; it doesn’t mean prices are returning to their levels before the Covid-19 pandemic. All voters, but especially those of moderate means, are acutely aware of that distinction, Campbell says.
“You are still paying more for eggs and your other necessities than you were a year ago, and you are paying a lot more than you were 2-3 years ago,” Campbell said. “And interest rates being really high compounds the problem in reality and in people’s minds, because now if you have to put something on your credit card you are paying even more – twice.” Higher interest rates are also making it more difficult for people to buy homes or finance cars.
Pollsters in both parties agree that, for now, higher prices are almost completely eclipsing the other good news in the economy, particularly the historically low unemployment level. Despite steady overall economic growth, surveys routinely find that most Americans with less education and income believe the US is in a recession and the economy is shrinking.
To Jim McLaughlin, a pollster for Trump’s 2024 campaign, those assessments are not surprising. For average voters, he said, “we are in an affordability recession.” Biden, he adds, “can sit there and say inflation was only 3% last month. But nobody believes that. When you tell normal people inflation has gone down to 3%, they don’t buy it.”
Democratic strategist Ben Tulchin, who served as the lead pollster for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ two presidential campaigns, points out the groups hit hardest by inflation include two traditionally Democratic-leaning blocs that have long resisted Biden: young people and Latinos. “In spite of all of Biden’s policy successes, pocketbook issues have impacted these two swing groups of voters who didn’t vote for him in the primary, moved to him in the  general election, and have since moved off of him again,” Tulchin said.
Amid this discontent, Biden is facing withering reviews for his management of the economy, especially among voters with less education and income. In the new CNN poll, the share of voters without a degree who said Biden’s policies had weakened the economy was 45 percentage points larger than the share who said his plans had improved conditions; among college-educated voters, Biden’s deficit on that question was a more manageable 15 percentage points.
Perhaps even more ominous for Biden were the results of an ABC/Washington Post poll this spring that directly asked Americans whether Biden or Trump had done a better job of managing the economy. Biden slightly led among college-educated voters, but those without degrees picked Trump by over two-to-one.
All of these measures suggest that Biden’s vulnerability on the economy is greater among voters without a college degree than those with advanced education. Polls show that the reverse is also true: Biden’s opportunities to regain support, particularly against Trump, are greater among those with a degree than those without one.
One reason is abortion. Majorities of voters with and without a college degree consistently say in polls that abortion should remain legal in all or most circumstances. But support for legal abortion is greatest among those with more education.
As important, there’s evidence that college-educated voters may place more weight on the issue. In the 2022 exit polls, college-educated White voters who supported legal abortion voted for Democrats at much higher levels than did Whites without a college degree who also believed the procedure should remain legal. Another telling measure came in this spring’s Wisconsin state Supreme Court election that revolved primarily around abortion rights: the liberal winner in the race enjoyed huge turnout and margins in white-collar areas such as Madison, but suffered badly lagging participation in lower-income Black communities in Milwaukee.
The belief that Trump constitutes a threat to American democracy also appears greater among voters with than without college degrees. In last week’s CNN poll, significantly more adults with a college degree than those without one said Trump should be disqualified from the presidency if the charges against him proved true in each of the three most serious criminal cases he faces: that he mishandled classified documents, tried to overturn the 2020 election result, and his actions related to the January 6, 2021, insurrection. About three-fifths of college-educated adults said the accusations about the election and January 6, if true, should disqualify Trump from the presidency. Similarly, in a national CBS survey last month, the share of Whites with a college degree who described Trump’s actions after the 2020 election as an illegal and unconstitutional attempt to stay in power was double the share who considered his actions legal; Whites without a college degree split about evenly on the question.
Trying to turn the tide
Taken together, these offsetting factors – concerns about Biden’s age and inflation vs. apprehension about abortion rights and democracy – help explain the dead heat that recent polls have consistently recorded between Biden and Trump, despite the former president’s multiple criminal indictments.
The latest CNN poll found the two men essentially tied among registered voters, with Biden leading among college-educated adults by slightly more than he did in 2020 but performing even worse than last time among those without a degree. The survey found that while Biden’s margin over Trump among people of color with a college degree was about the same as in 2020, the president’s lead had slipped substantially among non-Whites without a degree – a solid majority of whom said his policies had hurt, rather than helped, the economy.
It’s such economic attitudes that cause McLaughlin, the GOP pollster, to argue that if the choice in a potential rematch turns on issues rather than assessments of personality, “Donald Trump has a clear advantage… because he’s viewed as better on the economy.”
Biden’s early campaign advertising has leaned much more toward combating the negative views about his economic performance among working-class Americans than stoking the concerns about democracy and abortion among more affluent voters.
Generally, Democratic strategists support that emphasis, for several reasons. One is that non-college voters outnumber those with degrees by about three-to-two, so that any gain among the former produces a larger net advantage than equivalent improvement among the latter. Non-college voters are especially important in the industrial state battlegrounds usually at the tipping point of modern elections: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Most Democrats also believe that resistance to Trump among better-educated voters “is baked in” and does not require much further persuasion from Biden, as Campbell puts it.
For many Democrats, that makes the key question for 2024 whether Biden can recover any ground with non-college voters – not only Whites, but also Hispanics, especially Hispanic men. Biden even faces the risk of some erosion among Black men, many Democrats worry.
“Listen, under the best case scenario, it’s not like Biden is going to be at 60% approval on Election Day because people are jazzed about the economy,” said Andrew Baumann, a Democratic strategist. “That’s not what people like me are hoping for. We don’t need, as Democrats, to convince everybody that everything is perfect because it’s not.” Instead, Baumann says, given the other concerns about Trump, Biden “just needs to get it closer” when voters are asked whether he or the former president can do a better job managing the economy. And that, Baumann believes, Biden can achieve.
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin says the 2022 midterm elections offer Biden a blueprint for closing that gap. Despite widespread concern over the economy then, he notes, multiple winning Democratic Senate and governor candidates in key swing states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona won anyway, partly by focusing on tangible actions they had taken to help families confront costs, such as the provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act allowing Medicare to bargain for lower drug prices.
“When you get into the compare and contrast part of the campaign, Biden has a good story to tell about actions he has already taken and things he will do moving forward to lower prices for people,” Garin argues. “The contrast that Biden is setting up between growing the middle class and trickle-down economics is a good framework for next year.”
Still, Biden will likely face stubborn limits on his ability to win an argument about the economy next year so long as many voters feel that they have less money left at week’s end. Harvard University economist Jason Furman, who chaired the Council of Economic Advisers for then-President Barack Obama, points out that the annual wages of a typical worker today are about $2,000 less in inflation-adjusted dollars than they would have been on the trajectory wages had been increasing on in the years just before the pandemic. Wages are growing again now, particularly for workers on the lower rungs of the income ladder, but “the way I think about it is people got themselves into a very deep hole through early 2023,” Furman said in an email. “They’ve been digging out for much of this year but are not all the way out yet.”
Continued growth in wages and a sustained slowdown in inflation might sand off discontent about the economy enough to provide Biden some lift by November 2024. But Tulchin, the pollster for Sanders, predicts Biden’s effort to make a case for his economic performance “will only have limited impact because he’s an incumbent and people aren’t feeling better off.” Instead, Tulchin says, “The way you win elections as an incumbent is you disqualify your opponent.”
Like most Democrats, Tulchin believes Biden’s best weapons to disqualify Trump, if the two face off again, will be abortion and the fear that Trump would unleash “chaos” if he returned to the White House. And for all Biden’s focus on recapturing non-college voters, those are arguments that inherently detonate more powerfully among those with advanced education – whose support “middle-class Joe,” as Biden called himself at the Labor Day rally in Philadelphia, will likely need more than ever next year to secure another term.