For Obama, Another Blue-Collar Challenge

Iraq war veteran Paul Scott gets a fist-bump in Springhill, W.Va.
Iraq war veteran Paul Scott gets a fist-bump in Springhill, W.Va. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 8, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama did all he could to win over white working-class voters during the Democratic primaries -- shaking hands at factories, downing beers, bowling a few frames -- but it was largely in vain, as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton trounced Obama with the group in most states.

Now, the senator from Illinois must do it all over again. Even as the electoral landscape expands for his general-election matchup against Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), white working-class voters will remain a pivotal group, particularly in important swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Democrats hope that discontent over the economy, high gas prices and the war in Iraq will lead working-class voters to their side.

Yet they are marching into battle with a candidate who, against Clinton, faced cultural barriers with blue-collar voters, whether in Manchester, N.H., or small towns in Appalachian Ohio. Some expressed reservations about voting for a black candidate. Obama's comments that working-class people are bitter and cling to their guns and religion as a way of dealing with economic uncertainty did not help his cause.

The McCain campaign has begun targeting the group in earnest, believing Obama's problems appealing to these voters put Democratic states such as Michigan into play while leaving some would-be swing states, such as West Virginia, securely in their column.

But some analysts say Obama's challenge has been overstated. For starters, many of the working-class Democrats or independents who voted for Clinton had not voted Democratic in the last two presidential elections, which means that it would not necessarily be disastrous for Obama if he did not win a majority of their votes in November.

In 2004, President Bush won white voters without college degrees by 23 percentage points over Sen. John F. Kerry, a bigger margin than he enjoyed over Vice President Al Gore in 2000. Democrats whittled that deficit to 10 points in the congressional elections of 2006, when they retook both houses of Congress. No Democratic presidential candidate has won the group since 1980, when pollsters started tracking the demographic.

President Bush in 2004 carried Macomb County, Mich., a redoubt of "Reagan Democrats," yet Kerry carried the state. In Pennsylvania, Bush won white voters without college degrees by 10 points in 2004 but lost the state.

That means Obama could carry Michigan while doing little better with this group -- or even a little worse -- than Gore and Kerry did, especially if he gets a larger turnout from African Americans and young voters. But he has to keep the losses within limits, analysts say.

"Gore and Kerry have shown you can win Pennsylvania without that group coming to your side in a big way. But it's a much easier road if you can keep some of those folks in the fold," said Muhlenberg College political scientist Chris Borick.

The challenge for Democrats this year may loom largest in Ohio. Obama lost badly to Clinton in parts of the state's industrial northeast, in the working-class suburbs of Cleveland and in the beleaguered Mahoning River Valley, a corner of the state where Democrats normally need to run up a big majority to offset losses elsewhere.

But John Russo, director of the Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown State University, predicted Obama will be able to win over his share of Clinton supporters. The region's economy is so weak, he said, that many voters' anger at Republicans will overshadow doubts about Obama. And McCain probably will not perform as well in GOP strongholds as Bush did, lowering the bar for Obama. In the Republican primaries, McCain often lost the white working-class vote to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, probably because so many on the GOP side are evangelical Christians.

"The economics here are just so dramatic," Russo said. "Economic and class interests could trump the racial ones. I'm as hesitant as anyone to say that, because I know the importance of racial issues. But the economy is crucial."

To be sure, there are other swing groups. Hispanic voters appear to be moving back into the Democratic fold after heavy courting by Bush, but they too did not warm to Obama during the primaries. There are middle- and upper-middle class independents with whom both Obama and McCain have shown strength and who could help decide key states such as Virginia, Colorado and Missouri.

But hackneyed as the bar and bowling photo-ops may become, Obama needs to keep pursuing the white working class, said Ruy Teixeira, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Center for American Progress. Obama might squeak by with big margins among other voters, but if he wants the clear majority and national mandate that he often daydreams aloud about, then he will need to get his deficit with the group into the low double digits.

"If Democrats want to not just hang on for life by their fingertips, but win a nice solid victory, they need to do better than Kerry and Gore did" with that group, Teixeira said. "And it's not that hard."

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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