By Michael D. Shear and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 4, 2008
Democratic Sen. Barack Obama holds a 2 to 1 edge over Republican Sen. John McCain among the nation's low-wage workers, but many are unconvinced that either presidential candidate would be better than the other at fixing the ailing economy or improving the health-care system, according to a new national poll.
Obama's advantage is attributable largely to overwhelming support from two traditional Democratic constituencies: African Americans and Hispanics. But even among white workers -- a group of voters that has been targeted by both parties as a key to victory in November -- Obama leads McCain by 10 percentage points, 47 percent to 37 percent, and has the advantage as the more empathetic candidate.
Still, one in six of the white workers polled remains uncommitted to either candidate. And a majority of those polled, both white and minority, are ambivalent about the impact of the election, saying that no matter who wins, their personal finances are unlikely to change.
"It's not my main concern in life," said Mary Lee, 50, a factory worker in rural Kentucky. "I know how politics is. I really don't think it's going to matter either way."
More than disaffection drives these workers, according to the new national poll by the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University.
Their politics are shaped partly by their lot in the current economy: These voters are among the most severely hurt by rising prices, and many are insecure about their finances and lack jobs with basic benefits. Nevertheless, many are optimistic about the future even as they express deep suspicion about government.
The new poll included interviews with 1,350 randomly selected workers 18 to 64 years old who put in at least 30 hours a week but earned $27,000 or less last year. As a group, they are somewhat less likely to be Republicans than all adults under age 65 and are also less likely to be registered to vote. As many call themselves conservatives as liberal, and nearly four in 10 said their views on most political matters are "moderate."
The group, which accounts for nearly a quarter of U.S. adults, gives the Democrat the nod both as the more empathetic candidate and as the one who more closely shares their values. And while many express no opinion about who would do more to improve the economy or health care -- or the voters' finances -- Obama has the clear edge among those who picked a favorite on these core issues.
Obama's standing with the white workers runs counter to an impression, dating from the primary season, that he struggles to attract support from that group. McCain advisers have said for months that they think the Republican can win a significant share of those voters because of Obama's performance in the spring.
The survey suggests it will be difficult, but not impossible, for McCain to increase his appeal. Whereas Obama underperforms congressional Democrats by six points among low-wage whites -- 53 percent would prefer that the party control Congress -- McCain has a seven-point edge over congressional Republicans.
Sixteen percent of the white workers polled chose neither Obama nor McCain, saying either that they have no opinion or that they support someone else or that they do not plan to vote.
Ruth Haskins, 64, the city clerk of Billings, Mo., said she is "scared about the younger generation running the country" and is solidly "on the fence" about the election.
In May, as the race between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton raged on, McCain adviser Charlie Black told reporters that the campaign would reach out to working-class white voters, in part because of Obama's difficulties wresting such voters from the Clinton camp.
"Senator Obama doesn't appear to have the ability to hold the traditional Democratic coalition together as well as Mrs. Clinton might," he said at the time.
In an interview last week, Black said the campaign still plans to target working-class white voters, particularly by appealing to them on economic and energy issues. Jobs and gasoline prices are "very big to people in that income range," Black said.
Nearly two-thirds of the white workers surveyed want the government to make lower gas prices a "top priority," something McCain pitched earlier this year in advocating for a suspension of the federal gas tax. One respondent was particularly clear on this point: "I'll vote for whoever can bring the price of gas down," said Brian Levesque, 25, a social worker from Lansdale, Pa.
But slightly more, seven in 10, say government should focus on helping people like them find more affordable health insurance, a core component of Obama's campaign. Just over four in 10 favor placing a top priority on tax cuts or on creating jobs through an expansion of public works projects.
Overall, the survey suggests that Obama's economic appeals have the most resonance with white workers who are under the greatest financial stress. He leads by 19 percentage points among those white workers who feel "very insecure" financially; that is more than double his advantage among those in the group who feel better off.
McCain leads among those who say they have advanced over the past seven years, but it is a much smaller group -- only 17 percent of low-wage white workers. Obama has the edge among those who say they have stayed about even over that time period.
An issue of acute importance to low-wage workers -- the impact of illegal immigration -- is one that divides workers in the poll about evenly: Forty-nine percent said illegal immigrants take jobs from legal residents, and 47 percent said they do not.
Nearly six in 10 white and black workers said they think undocumented workers take jobs away from those here legally; seven in 10 Hispanics disagreed. (Nearly half of the Hispanic workers interviewed in this poll are not U.S. citizens.)
International trade -- and its impact on increasingly scarce jobs -- is another issue that may prove a flash point for workers in the fall campaign.
Half of those polled said growth in trade has made things worse for the country; far fewer, only about two in 10, said it has had a net benefit, and a similar percentage said they are unsure. But a majority also said trade has not changed their lives one way or the other.
As is the case with immigration, majorities of white and black workers said trade has done more harm than good, while most Hispanics disagreed.
"One thing I keep seeing is a lack of wherewithal to tackle the tough issues like health care, illegal immigration," said Stephanie Dayton, 51, a bookkeeper in Tucson. "It's sort of like overhauling the tax code. If there was an easy way to tackle it without conflict, they would have done it already. At some point it takes some backbone to get it done. Get some backbone and decide what you stand for."
McCain's biggest challenge is among minority workers.
Among the African Americans polled, 92 percent chose Obama as the candidate more concerned with their problems; not a single black respondent said so about McCain, although 1 percent said "both do." Hispanics also sided with Obama on that question, favoring him by more than 40 percentage points as the more empathetic candidate.
The poll was conducted by conventional and cellular telephone June 18 to July 7, among a random national sample of low-wage workers. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta and assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.