Democrats tried to win over working-class voters. But they ignored their biggest worry.

The first night of the second Democratic primary debate was political theater for a very specific audience: white working-class Trump voters.

That was clear when moderate candidates tried to distance themselves from the word “socialism.” It was clear when Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) said Trump’s trade war was “effective.” It was obvious when Montana Gov. Steve Bullock bashed the idea of providing unauthorized immigrant workers with free health care.

The questions and answers painted a caricature of the voter Democrats think they need to “win back” to take the White House: old white male workers who don’t really like immigrants.

They rattled off a list of workers they imagined sitting in front of their televisions. Farmers. Construction workers. Coal miners. Electricians.

“We’ve got to talk about the working-class issues, the people that take a shower after work who haven’t had a raise in 30 years,” Ryan said.

Except they didn’t talk about some of those issues. Besides a few passing mentions to families struggling to pay their bills, Democrats didn’t talk about what they would do to raise people’s wages and incomes. After health care, which got nearly 30 minutes of airtime during the debate, the No. 1 concern Midwestern voters have is about their paychecks. They don’t care as much about gun violence or immigration (most voters polled in Michigan, for example, say they don’t want President Trump’s border wall, and they tend to like immigrants), which were also issues that were brought up early in the debate.

Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) speaks while Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) listens during the Democratic Presidential Debate on July 30, 2019.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) speaks while Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) listens during the first night of the second Democratic debate on July 30, 2019.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Ryan said these mythical voters care about “jobs and infrastructure.” Not really. Midwestern voters care about better-paying jobs, sure, but they’re not worried about finding the right job. They care about their finances. They want to see their paychecks grow. That’s the biggest problem facing the US economy, but you wouldn’t know that from watching the debate.

Americans aren’t getting raises

Even though Americans are finding jobs pretty easily, they still aren’t seeing the so-called “economic boom” reflected in their pocketbooks.

With such a tight labor market and rising productivity, workers should expect much bigger pay raises than they’re getting.

In the past 12 months, average hourly earnings have only increased 3.1 percent, and that doesn’t even take inflation into account, according to the latest jobs report from the US Department of Labor. The latest pay data suggests that workers and labor unions will continue to strike to force businesses to boost wages.

“Growth in wages [is] clearly leveling out,” Indeed economist Martha Gimbel said earlier this month.

Martha Gimbel/Indeed.com

Slow income growth has been the weakest part of the US economy in its recovery from the Great Recession. Wages have barely kept up with the cost of living, even as the unemployment rate dropped and the economy expanded.

And in the Midwest, income growth is more sluggish than in other parts of the country. In Michigan, incomes only grew by 3.3 percent from 2017 to 2018, not adjusted for inflation —one the smallest increases, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Incomes in Indiana and Ohio didn’t grow much faster.

Bureau of Economic Analysis

Over the past year, the cost of food and housing has gone up, so paychecks have had to stretch further. But because of a recent drop in the price of clothes and utilities, the annual inflation rate has fallen to 2 percent, compared to a high of 2.4 percent in 2018 (based on the Consumer Price Index).

When you take inflation into account, workers’ real wages only grew about 1.3 percent over the past year. This is worth emphasizing: During the longest economic expansion in US history, with record-low unemployment, workers are only making 1.3 percent more than they did last year, after adjusting for inflation.

That’s even slower than wages were growing earlier this year, and it’s pitiful when you compare it to the sky-high payouts corporate CEOs are getting. CEOs got an average $500,000 pay bump in 2018, while the average US worker got an extra $1,000 — barely enough to outpace inflation.

Frustration over stagnant wages is also the major factor underlying widespread worker strikes across the country in places like California, Illinois, and Missouri (workers at Vox also staged a one-day walkout earlier this year amid ongoing contract negotiations). In April, 31,000 supermarket employees went on strike in the Northeast to reverse proposed pay cuts and rising insurance premiums. The Stop & Shop strike was the largest private sector work stoppage in years. After eight days with empty supermarkets, the company agreed to scrap its plan.

The widespread labor unrest underscores how the Republican tax cuts did little to help working-class families, despite all the promises from congressional Republicans. In response, voters in some states have forced businesses to give low-paid employees a raise.

In November’s midterm elections, voters in Missouri and Arkansas overwhelmingly approved ballot measures that will raise the minimum wage for nearly 1 million workers across both states. And as a result of the new laws, more than 5 million low-wage workers in 19 states got pay raises on January 1.

Those laws have helped boost wages for some in 2019, but not enough.

Democrats easily could have addressed it

It wouldn’t take much for Democrats to talk about their plans to raise wages. Most of them have endorsed a $15 minimum wage; they could have mentioned that.

They could have discussed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would ban right-to-work laws that have weakened private sector unions. They could have talked about the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, which would for the first time guarantee collective bargaining rights to all government employees. They could have talked about AB 5, the California bill that would crack down on the gig economy companies that avoid paying benefits and the minimum wage by mislabeling employees as independent contractors.

But that didn’t happen. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was the only one to directly address the issue of low wages and gave specific solutions, like extending collective bargaining to gig economy workers.

“There are people in the economy who go through more jobs in a week than my parents went through in their lifetime,” he said on the debate stage. “It’s why I proposed we allow gig workers to unionize. … We have to respond to the changes and, in addition, confront technology and support workers by doubling unionization.”

Buttigieg also said the minimum wage is too low. “So-called conservative Christian senators right now in the Senate are blocking a bill to raise the minimum wage, when Scripture says whoever oppresses the poor taunts their maker.”

And that’s where the talk of wages ended.

On Tuesday night, Democrats spent a lot of time talking about how the party needs to reach working-class voters, and not enough time actually addressing those voters’ biggest concerns.