Who's More Red, White and Blue-Collar?
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- If he weren't so busy waiting tables at O'Charley's or scanning Wal-Mart for discount meat to feed his four kids, Scott Winschief thinks he might make a pretty good candidate for president of the United States. For the past six months, he has watched on television in his double-wide mobile home as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have traveled around the country and imitated his lifestyle. Badly.
They posed for photos in the same kind of factory where Winschief, 44, pinched a nerve in his back hauling 1,800-pound coils of wire in 140-degree heat. They visited bars and drained pints of the domestic beer that fills Winschief's fridge. They toured barns occupied by animals like the ones he fed at 4 a.m. every day so he could pay for a few years of college. They reminisced about shooting guns like the ones displayed inside almost every house in his rural neighborhood.
The presidential race has turned into a riveting competition for ordinariness, as both campaigns have concluded that whoever does a better job of winning over voters like Winschief -- an average blue-collar man in an average American town of 60,000 -- is more likely to triumph in Tuesday's primaries in Indiana and North Carolina.
Identifying with the common man has been a requisite in presidential elections for almost two centuries. But the stakes are especially high in a race largely defined by an economic crisis, and campaign experts say the candidates have gone especially far in their appeals.
In the past six weeks, Clinton hammered down a shot of Crown Royal whiskey -- not necessarily the first choice of the workingman -- and chased it with a beer. Obama visited a Pennsylvania sports bar and sampled a Yuengling after making sure it wasn't "some designer beer." Clinton told stories about learning to shoot behind the cottage her grandfather built. Obama went bowling.
Whether these voyeurs of blue-collar existence yield results depends on how people like Winschief perceive them. Are these genuine attempts at connection or overly calculated tactics to win voters? Are they telling moments that reveal a candidate's humanity or patronizing charades that reveal a candidate's guile?
Last Tuesday night, Winschief cradled his custom-made bowling ball at Arrowhead Bowl in downtown Lafayette. It was league night, a staple of his schedule for the past decade, and he shuffled a deck of Hooters playing cards on the table in front of him and gulped Miller Lite from a plastic cup. One of Winschief's teammates mentioned Obama's recent misadventures at a bowling alley, where he rolled a succession of gutter balls (with the help of a couple of young children who rolled a couple of frames) en route to a score of 37. The friend wondered whether there was an adult in Lafayette who couldn't beat Obama's abysmal total.
Winschief, an undecided Democrat, pondered this for a second as he glanced up at his own score -- 164 with three of 10 frames left to bowl.
"I love him for trying, but that's awful," he said. "A 37? It kind of makes you wonder why he's even bowling in the first place."
Presidential candidates have strived relentlessly downward in social class ever since the 1840s, when William Henry Harrison created what historians now call the "common-man myth." While most of his peers campaigned from their estates, Harrison traveled the country and spoke under a banner depicting a log cabin and a bottle of hard cider. He won the presidency by a landslide, and his campaign model became the new standard.
With few exemptions since, American voters have picked presidents who mimic the public's most ordinary habits -- men who regularly mention drinking, or NASCAR, or old-fashioned farm work. Ronald Reagan liked to be photographed chopping wood. George H.W. Bush spoke longingly about pork rinds. Bill Clinton stopped at McDonald's while on the campaign trial, even when it required a side trip. And George W. Bush is a champion brush-clearer.
Disruption to this role-playing occurs only when a politician makes a blunder so glaring that it reveals him to be a jester in costume. Gerald Ford bit into a tamale without husking it while campaigning on the Mexican border in 1976, and he extolled its deliciousness before realizing he had consumed the wrapper. John F. Kerry ordered a cheesesteak at Pat's in Philadelphia and asked for Swiss cheese, even though Pat's had specialized in subs with Cheez Whiz for 70 years.