While the navel-gazing about why blue-collar voters abandoned the Democratic party continues in the political media, most campaigns and strategists have long ago turned to fixing the problem. This memo is an effort to highlight one point-talking about skills training-that has been effective in persuading historical Democratic voters to return to the fold. Not only has talking about skills training helped win us special elections across blue-collar America in the last year and change, it's also consistently one of the best-polling reasons to support Democratic candidates across the Midwest/Great Lakes region of the country that swung so hard against us in 2016.
This is not to suggest Democrats stop talking about the value of classroom/college education and the need to get costs/debt down - they still have message value with many voters. It's more to suggest highlighting alternatives in our messaging and realizing post-recession, many voters view non-college paths as a viable and successful alternative. We do well to hit on this issue that speaks strongly to voters who can't, don't want to, don't want the debt, or for other reasons don't see themselves sitting in college classrooms for four years.

  • Make this more about children, not adults. Campaigns too often conceptualize skills training solely as a job re-training message, when in fact voters react more positively to it when framed as a program for young people in high school or just after it. Voters talk in focus groups about the lack of shop classes or other work-oriented classes in high school any more. Many also raise the example of a child they know who they feel won't succeed in college but could work hard and earn a living with their hands if given the chance. They also talk about how many high paying jobs are out there in the real world and how they are in demand if young people will just go get the skills needed to succeed. 
  • Think of skills training as a cultural touchstone, not just an economic one. Skills training speaks to people on a pocketbook level, for sure. But there's a deeper cultural resonance among people who value hard work and don't think hard work includes sitting at a desk. To many voters, it speaks to the honor of putting in a day's work as a plumber, crane operator, mechanic, or working in advanced manufacturing. Respect for that type of work isn't something blue-collar voters are hearing from all corners of the Democratic party, at least not as much as they need to be.
  • Frame it in terms of a path for children who college isn't right for. When presented with this concept in an ad or on paper in a focus groups, non-college voters talk about the "college for all mentality" that doesn't speak to them or their reality. As a party, we should more explicitly talk about providing alternatives for kids besides just a four-year degree.
    • Acknowledge that college isn't for everyone. We hear a lot of "college isn't for everyone" in focus groups from people who did and didn't go to college. Voters don't think of that as something to look down on someone for-there's value to them in skilled trades and hard work-but they that elites look down on people who aren't willing or able to go to college. Democrats would do well to talk about the inherent value of these paths that we should be providing for kids if college isn't going to work for them.
  • This is not just a message for white Obama/Trump "rust belt" voters. It surelypolls well with white blue-collar voters across the Midwest and Great Lakes states. It has been effective in the Mississippi River adjacent counties in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa where Trump racked up his biggest gains over Mitt Romney, and it's powerful in Michigan's iconic working-class bellwether Macomb County.
However, it's a message that also works with:
    • Voters of color, especially those without a college degree. In polls for more than one candidate in Chicago, this has been a potent message with non-college Latinos and African Americans. We've also seen it poll well among African Americans in the Detroit suburbs, a heavily non-college group.
    • College-educated whites. We wouldn't suggest running a campaign on this to college-educated whites, but they are increasingly skeptical that college is the best path for every child. In one Iowa focus group of college-educated men under 50, only half of participants raised their hand when asked if getting a college degree worked out for them. As such, they also responded strongly to a message that highlighted the value of trade school that could get someone a good-paying middle-class job.
    • Swing voters around the country. We have heard this issue come up organically in focus groups in Florida and Nevada in the last few months; this message is for national distribution rather than a very narrow geographical slice of the country.
  • This is about both education and jobs, especially while the economy is doing well. A nice piece of this message is that it shifts the jobs debate from businesses (tax cuts and red tape/excessive regulation) to workers (raises, better jobs, training), which is more favorable terrain for Democrats. So we shouldn't just silo this into an education message, it should also be about economic opportunity for kids.
  • Labor unions should use this as a reason to drive support for union rights. In our work for labor unions including operating engineers' locals across the country, people have been surprised and encouraged to hear about training facilities and apprenticeship programs that unions operate. Unions provide people a great path to the middle class. The more voters get that, the more they support the right to organize and a whole host of union priorities.