Clinton, Trump Present Starkly Different Messages On The Middle Class

Oct 3, 2016
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As Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton campaign around the country these last few weeks before the election, they are continuing to reach out to the all-important middle class voter. But how did the candidates get that message across to the economic middle when they themselves are wealthy? As part of our series The New Middle, we asked NPR's Tamara Keith to take a look at that.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are not themselves members of the middle class, not by a long shot, which means they've searched for other ways to prove to voters that they care about their concerns and understand what middle class workers are going through.


DONALD TRUMP: Oftentimes they're working two jobs.

KEITH: Trump says he's worth $10 billion. But at the Republican Convention, one of his sons referred to him as a blue collar billionaire.

In a speech last month at the Economic Club of New York, Trump tried to show that he identifies with the challenges faced by the American middle class.


TRUMP: So they're working harder, they're older and they're making less. It's like me, I'm working harder than I've ever worked also. But these are minor - nobody cares about that. That's - who cares about that?

KEITH: Clinton and her husband, the former president, are of course by all measures quite wealthy as well, having earned tens of millions of dollars in book royalties and speaking fees in recent years. Which is why in speeches, she leans heavily on her family history.


HILLARY CLINTON: I'm a proud product of the American middle class.

KEITH: Her grandfather worked in a lace mill, and his son was able to go to college. Her father owned his own business making draperies, and his daughter was able to go to Yale Law School.


CLINTON: Every American family should be able to write a similar story for themselves and their children. And history has shown us...


CLINTON: ...Our history has shown us that the strongest growth in our economy is inclusive, broad-based growth.

KEITH: The difference in the way Clinton and Trump talk about the middle class is stark. For Clinton, it's a story of hope. For Trump, it is a story of loss.

This is how Clinton responded when I asked her to describe the middle.


CLINTON: The middle class is both real and aspirational. And I want to make sure that it remains strong and it gives people a sense of security and confidence and optimism about their futures.

KEITH: Clinton has pledged not to raise taxes on the middle class. And by that, she means anyone making up to $250,000 a year. Her debt-free college, child care and paid family leave proposals are targeted directly at the things that have middle class families scrambling, and would be paid for with tax increases on the wealthy.

Trump's campaign did not respond to a request to participate in this story. But this is what the Republican nominee said in his speech last month in New York.


TRUMP: We have surrendered our middle class to the whims of foreign countries. We take care of them better than we take care of ourselves.

KEITH: Trump was talking about trade deals he says have hurt American workers. As he rolled out the latest iteration of his plan for a massive tax cut, Trump claimed it would help the middle class the most. Nonpartisan tax analysts disagree. Trump has also stepped up efforts to appeal to suburban women with proposed tax breaks for childcare and paid maternity leave. But most of his campaign's message has been designed to appeal to workers without college degrees, left behind as the country's economy shifted toward skilled manufacturing and service jobs.


TRUMP: They have been forgotten. We are not going to forget them. They have built our country. We will not forget.

KEITH: Trump is asking middle class voters to go with a candidate who speaks to their frustrations. Clinton is asking them to pick her because of all the detailed proposals she's offered to address those concerns.

Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.