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White Male Vote Especially Critical
Questions Remain Over Obama's Ability to Appeal to Demographic

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 17, 2008

In the fierce campaign between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, a battle dominated by questions of race and gender, white men have emerged as perhaps the single critical swing constituency.

The competition for the support of white men, particularly those defined as working class, will shape the showdown between Clinton and Obama in Pennsylvania's Democratic presidential primary on April 22. Obama (Ill.) won majorities among those voters in what appeared to be breakthrough victories in Wisconsin and Virginia last month. But he badly lost working-class white men to Clinton (N.Y.) in Ohio and Texas two weeks ago, keeping the outcome of the Democratic race in doubt indefinitely.

The results in Ohio in particular raised questions about whether Obama can attract support from this crucial demographic. They also brought to the forefront the question of whether racial prejudice would be a barrier to his candidacy in some of the major industrial battlegrounds in the general election if he becomes the Democratic nominee.

An examination of exit polls in Wisconsin and Ohio, states with striking similarities, shows that many more working-class white men in Ohio said race was a factor in their vote on March 4 than was the case in Wisconsin. The analysis makes clear that race was not the deciding factor in the Ohio primary but did contribute to Clinton's margin of victory.

In the past week, racial issues have dominated the campaign dialogue. Former Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro was forced to quit the Clinton campaign after her comments about Obama and race brought sharp criticism from the senator and his allies.

On Friday, Obama had to distance himself from his spiritual mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., former pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, over statements widely viewed as being anti-American. Obama has been a member of the church for two decades.

Obama's advisers have sought to play down the idea that racial prejudice was a major factor in Clinton's victory in Ohio. They suggest that Obama's poor performance among working-class white men reflects broader generational divisions that have marked the Democratic race.

David Axelrod, senior adviser to Obama, said he is uncertain how concerned the campaign should be about the influence of race on working-class white voters. "It bears some closer examination," he said. "I think for older voters, it's more of a leap than for younger voters. But I don't think it's an insuperable barrier."

Obama has sought to transcend race in his campaign, and found considerable success in that pursuit in many states. Racial divisions have shown up in Southern states, as they did last Tuesday in Mississippi and earlier in Alabama. In both primaries, Obama overwhelmingly carried the black vote and Clinton overwhelmingly carried the white vote. But in smaller states outside the South -- such as Iowa, Kansas and Utah -- where there are far fewer minorities, Obama has done extremely well with white voters.

One view in Obama's campaign is that his poor showing in Ohio primarily reflected that the state has a high number of older voters. An analysis of exit polls in the two states undercuts that assertion. There were roughly similar percentages of white working-class men over 45 and under 45 in both states. It is accurate that Obama did far better with younger men in both states, but he won younger and older white men in Wisconsin but lost both groups in Ohio.

One difference between the two states is the influence of race on voting patterns. Among white men in Wisconsin, 11 percent said race was an important factor in their vote. In Ohio, 27 percent of white men said race was an important factor. That is not enough to explain the entire difference in the voting patterns of white men in the two states, but more than enough to explain at least part of Obama's problem.

Andrew L. Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, which has endorsed Obama, said that in industrialized states that have experienced economic dislocation and job losses, the competition for jobs heightens racial tensions. "I think race is a factor in the sense that these are states that have had a decreasing number of jobs because of deindustrialization," he said.

Securing the votes of white men has become a critical factor in the Democratic race. Throughout the primary season, Clinton has dominated the votes of white women, but she and Obama have battled for support from white men.

In 27 states where exit polls were conducted, starting with Iowa on Jan. 3 and ending with Mississippi last week, Clinton won the white male vote 11 times and Obama 10 times. In five states, they basically split the votes of white men. Former senator John Edwards (N.C.) carried white men in South Carolina.

Obama has generally won decisively among white men with college degrees; Clinton has consistently done far better with those who did not graduate from college. Obama broke that pattern in mid-February in Virginia and Wisconsin. He barely lost among white men without college degrees in Virginia and won them in Wisconsin by 60 percent to 38 percent.

That appeared to be a breakthrough with potentially game-changing consequences in the Democratic race. Had Obama continued to cut significantly into Clinton's margins among less-educated white men and continued to outpace her among those with college degrees, she would have probably lost the popular vote in Texas and carried Ohio by such a small margin that she would have faced pressure to get out of the race.

Instead, she survived and kept the nomination battle going. In Ohio, she carried white, non-college-educated men by 66 percent to 31 percent. In Texas, she and Obama split the white male vote, but she carried those without college degrees by 20 points.

Stern and others see the challenge Obama faces not primarily as racial but in its broadest context. The question is whether a candidate can pass what Stern has called the "hang test." That is, can Obama relate easily and empathetically to working-class voters -- or, more simply, can he hang out with them?

Clinton demonstrated her ability to do so in Ohio, emerging as a champion of working-class voters battered by the impact of globalization and a decline in manufacturing jobs. Obama, in the view of one Democratic strategist with ties to organized labor, has struggled to show similar empathy. His call for change appeals more to upscale voters.

"It's going to take a real heavy emphasis on an agenda so that people see he's going to go to sleep at night and wake up every morning thinking about rebuilding the industrial base and kitchen-table economics," said the strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to candidly assess Obama's campaign.

Stern said Obama needs to talk more about his experience as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, where he worked with dislocated steelworkers and their families, and his own life experience.

"He needs to introduce himself not just in the broadest sense as a change agent and who is obviously very smart, but who has lived the life of a single parent, who had to take loans to go to college, who lived in communities in Chicago with steelworkers who lost their jobs," Stern said. "He has incredible credentials. He's walked more than a day in workers' shoes. But it's enormously important that he make that introduction."

Stern suggested that Obama spend more time in VFW halls or community centers, listening more than talking but also finding ways to relate his work as a community organizer to the lives of working-class voters.

Axelrod said he and other officials hope to modify the style of the campaign going forward, with less emphasis on big rallies.

"We want to campaign closer to the ground than we did in those two weeks, where we did a lot of rallies, and they have their place," he said. "But there are all kinds of other things we'd like to do and should do that connotes the fact, which is that he is a bottom-up, grass-roots person who has always been about -- from the time he was an organizer in the shadow of closed steel mills, who has been fighting and working for people who were squeezed."

James P. Hoffa, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said Obama should do better with working-class men in Pennsylvania. "One of the problems with Ohio was there really wasn't the time," he said. "There's going to be more time to campaign in Pennsylvania. I'm not using it as an excuse, but he didn't have the time to spend the time in the state."

The other question for Obama is whether he would have any less trouble winning the votes of working-class white men in a general election. Republican strategists look at such places as southern Ohio and question whether Obama could ever carry downscale white voters in the fall. But Stern said the difference between running against Clinton in the primary and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the general election is significant.

"In the primary, there's another candidate who has a legitimate case to be made about caring about people who work, about standing up as it relates to special interests," he said. "But I think John McCain has a very different record here."

Axelrod argued that, given time, Obama can win over white working-class men. "I think there's still plenty of receptivity out there," he said. "I think as people get to know him, just as has been true elsewhere, we can reduce that number."

Polling director Jon Cohen and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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