The White Working Class Vote

With all the talk of Obama’s alleged problems with the white working voters this year, John Harwood does an excellent job of placing this issue in perspective by quoting Ruy Teixeira, author of America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters.

Mr. Obama, who leads the delegate count, “is clocking in where he needs to be” with white, working-class voters to win the White House in November, Mr. Teixeira said.

Through most of the primaries, the constituencies supporting either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Obama have remained remarkably stable. While Mr. Obama, of Illinois, has energized young, African-American and affluent voters, his rival from New York has dominated among women, Hispanics, blue-collar whites and older voters.

Among white, working-class voters — most commonly identified as those without a college degree — Mrs. Clinton has won by 2 to 1 or better in states like Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Mr. Obama has fared better among less culturally conservative working-class whites in states like Oregon, where the environment is a central issue for voters.

While Teizeira and this article are primarily concerned with voting trends, ideology is also important here. Yes, Hillary Clinton does do better among the culturally conservative working-class voters than her more liberal opponent, but this comes as a cost. I see no benefit in backing a Democratic candidate who is even more conservative than the presumptive Republican candidate on some issues.

Clinton has increasingly adopted both the views and tactics of her new friends in the vast right wing conspiracy. Clinton backed the Iraq war, despite her attempts to hide this fact. She also differs significantly from Obama on the drug war, including on sentencing reform and needle-exchange programs. Clinton has stronger ties to the religious right and those who deny separation of church and state than the presumptive Republican candidate. Her conservative ties have influenced her support for legislation to ban flag burning and support censorship of video games. Clinton also opposed the banning of cluster bombs. She backs the same types of abuses of executive power practiced by George Bush while I suspect that even John McCain would do a better job of respecting the role of Congress.

Returning from ideology to electoral trends, Clinton has distorted primary returns to exaggerate her electability:

Still, Mrs. Clinton’s claim that she is best positioned to win the “hard-working Americans, white Americans” has become the linchpin of her argument that she is more electable than Mr. Obama.

But Mr. Teixeira, who is not backing either candidate, does not buy that argument. He dismisses intraparty contests as “pretty poor evidence” of whether Mr. Obama, as the Democratic nominee, could attract the blue-collar support he would need against Senator John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee.

And how much blue-collar support would Mr. Obama need? Not a majority, said Mr. Teixeira. Though blue-collar Democrats once represented a centerpiece of the New Deal coalition, they have shrunk as a proportion of the information age-economy and as a proportion of the Democratic base.

Al Gore lost working-class white voters by 17 percentage points in 2000, even while winning the national popular vote. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts lost them by 23 points in 2004, while running within three points of President Bush over all. Mr. Teixeira suggests that Mr. Obama can win the presidency if he comes within 10 to 12 percentage points of Mr. McCain with these voters, as Democratic candidates for the House did in the 2006 midterm election.

In recent national polls, that is exactly what Mr. Obama is doing. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed Mr. Obama trailing by 12 percentage points with working-class whites; a poll by Quinnipiac University, showed him trailing by seven points. In each survey, Mr. Obama led over all by seven points.

While Clinton had done better than Obama in attracting the white working class vote in the primaries, many of these voters will still vote for Obama in a general election. While Clinton’s support is limited to her core Democratic voters, Obama can do far better by bringing in voters who do not usually vote Democratic:

But Mr. Ayres concedes that resistance need not be fatal to Mr. Obama’s candidacy. “The question is whether they’ll be counterbalanced by the new voters and young voters he brings in,” he said.

Mr. Obama’s advisers, and some unaffiliated strategists, acknowledge that he would lose some working-class votes that Mrs. Clinton might receive should she somehow win over enough superdelegates to capture the nomination. But they insist the answer to Mr. Ayres is yes, Mr. Obama would attract other voters to offset those losses.

In two states where Mrs. Clinton swamped Mr. Obama among working-class white voters, some recent surveys have shown him leading Mr. McCain. Is working-class resistance in Ohio and Pennsylvania going to be enough to prevent Mr. Obama from winning, asks Mark Mellman, an adviser to the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, and other Democratic politicians. “I think the answer is, not.”

Mr. Teixeira argues that Mr. Obama’s standing with working-class whites may be artificially low in the wake of his skirmishing with Mrs. Clinton and the controversy over his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

“Yes, he has a problem,” Mr. Teixeira said. “But it’s a solvable problem.”

While this analysis concentrates on one group, white working-class voters, it ignores another important swing group, the more affluent, educated voters. I’ve previously discussed a post from Norm Scheiber which explains that currently, “There are really two broad swing groups: one working-class, the other affluent.” Just recently I noted that Marc Ambinder has looked at such an analysis and concluded that Obama can win the election due to the number of swing voters backing him (in his case, the affluent, more educated group). By 2006 many such swing voters, such as the Starbucks Republicans, rejected the GOP due to their turn to the right on social issues and support for the Iraq war. Obama is pulling in even more of these voters. In contrast, many affluent, educated voters will see no reason to support either the economically populist or socially conservative views of Hillary Clinton and will either vote for John McCain or stay home.

The tendency of the Clinton camp to write off those who disagree with their conservative viewpoints as “elitists” whose views do not matter acts to further widen this divide and limit Clinton’s potential support. The objection to Clinton’s views and conduct in this race cannot simply be ignored as meaningless fake scandals as some Clinton apologists like Paul Krugman claim.

While Clinton clings to the politics of polarization, Obama is running a far more inclusive campaign. Although his strongest support in the primaries comes from the more affluent Democratic voters, Obama’s economic positions are actually far more sounder and beneficial to the working class voters than Clinton’s polices which even ignore the views of economists as elitist. I support Obama over Clinton primarily due to their considerable differences on social issues, foreign policy, and government reform, and would do so even if he was less electable, but fortunately Obama is also the more electable of the two.

1 Comment

  1. 1
    JollyRoger says:

    Hillary’s embrace of Klanservatism was bad enough. Her stupid utterance on the 1968 election should have iced the cake. Were she the presumptive nominee, and dems stayed away from the polls, they could hardly be blamed for their reluctance to vote for Hillary.
    I once said she’d be better than McCavein. Her campaign has worked hard to prove otherwise, and they have largely succeeded.

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