The White Working Class Vote and Electability

Marc Ambinder asks if Barack Obama needs the working class white votes.

COULD IT BE that Obama’s coalition (young voters, professionals, crossover men, the educated, the economically stable middle class voters, African American voters) gives him enough of a cushion? Maybe Democrats won’t need as many working class whites to win the election; correspondingly, the polarized primary has pushed them away from their nominee in general. What accounts for the disparity between the astonishingly high numbers of Democrats in states like Kentucky and West Virginia who say they’d vote for McCain — and Obama’s national lead in the polls? What is his coalition? And how does it translate into the 50 constituent parts of what a national lead actually is? Might Obama’s strength in the popular vote be a reflection of Democratic energy in large states and Republican sloth in large states — rather than a reflection of the coalition he needs to win the general election? States are more internally diverse than regions of states are. In other words — are the demographics of Obama’s coalition so skewed (in terms of previous coalitions) that his national lead will greatly overstate his relative strength in the electoral college? Or is Obama’s new coalition so robust as to absorb some of the bleeding of white, working class men in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and still end up winning? Tentative points to support the latter theory can be found in Obama’s primary victory in Iowa, where turnout far exceeded the expectations of everyone, in Wisconsin and Minnesota and Colorado, where Obama won handily but especially among Obama’s core demographic groups, and in the way the campaign has been able to organize 75,000 rallies on a May Sunday in Oregon.

Many Clinton supporters write off Obama supporters as “elitists” which is rather ironic as these Clinton supporters are the very ones who base their views on the assumption that the views of some voters (i.e. theirs) count while the views of other voters (i.e. the affluent, educated voters backing Obama) do not count. I’ve recently discussed a post from Norm Scheiber which explains that currently, “There are really two broad swing groups: one working-class, the other affluent.” Ambinder is concluding that Obama can win the election due to the number of swing voters backing him (in his case, the affluent, more educated group).

While doing well with the affluent, educated swing voters would probably be sufficient to win the election, fortunately this is not an either/or matter with regards to the Obama campaign. The Clinton campaign has become exclusionary, writing off Obama’s supporters as elitists and pretty much ensuring large numbers will vote for John McCain or stay home should Clinton win the nomination. In contrast, while Obama has done better among the affluent, educated voters, he also seeks to gain the support of the demographics previously prefering Clinton.

In many cases these were low-information voters who backed Clinton either due to name recognition or due to initially believing the negative attacks and distortions of Obama’s record coming from the Clinton campaign. Over time many of the Clinton supporters are coming to prefer him, possibly because Obama’s economic plans are much sounder than the politically-motivated plans coming from Clinton. Gallup now shows that most of the demographic groups which previously backed Clinton are moving towards Obama. Others might still prefer Clinton as their first choice, but will still turn out to vote for Obama should he be the Democratic nominee.

Obama’s problems with working class voters have been greatly exaggerated as, while this has appeared to be the case in some states, Obama has beaten Clinton among working class voters in other states. Ambinder concludes:

It goes without saying that white working class voters in Wisconsin are different than white working class voters in Kentucky, too. So maybe the question for Obama is: which white working class voters should he spend time courting? Should he spend any time in West Virginia, where centuries of racism and cultural conservative have calcified and still govern vote choice; or in Wisconsin, where, although racial and cultural tensions remain, they are soft, in decline, and are subordinate to other concerns?

Geography (and the attitudes of those who live in the area) does provide the key. As many of us have been pointing out, Obama’s primary problem is not with white working class voters nationwide but with those living in Appalachia. Josh Marshall has provided a summary of some of the features of the area, besides race, which result in the area being less likely to vote for Obama.

While Clinton easily beat Obama in Democratic primaries in the region, the area will also go Republican regardless of who the Democratic nominee is. It doesn’t matter much in terms of considering electability of the candidates if Obama does not do well in an area if Clinton cannot win the area in a general election campaign either. It is far more significant that the swing voters who do prefer Obama over Clinton will help Obama win many other states beyond Appalachia in a general election while these voters are less likely to support Clinton. Clinton’s problem is exacerbated by the use of race in the campaign, which undoubtedly will result in many black voters who normally vote Democratic staying home should she be the nominee.

The important point is not that Barack Obama doesn’t do well with poorly educated and often racist voters in Appalachia but that Clinton doesn’t do well among educated voters, affluent liberal voters, and black voters. Obama’s weakness among groups which are not likely to vote Democratic under any circumstance is far less significant than Clinton’s weakness in groups which could determine who wins the election.

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1 Comment

  1. 1
    D.M. says:

    How can the spouse of the President who brought the World NAFTA, a trade agreement targeted against workers in Mexico, the United States, and Canada, be the champion of the underdog?

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