Obama’s Problem With Working-Class Whites: Not As Bad As You Think!

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Barack Obama’s biggest problem is — all together now — white working-class voters. Right? Even as Obama has essentially wrapped up the Democratic nomination, analysts and pundits have been squawking since the Ohio primary that he hasn’t been able to break through among downscale whites. These fabled Reagan Democrats, who are really Nixon Democrats, comprise crucial chunks of the electorate in historically swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, and Obama supposedly is cruising for big trouble in November unless he connects better with them.

Why are we spending so much time on these particular white folks? For one thing, the Clinton campaign has zeroed in on them as Hillary’s last chance to wrest the nomination. But that’s mostly a function of the primary calendar. If Massachusetts and Rhode Island had voted in May, we would have heard about Obama’s weakness among seniors and Catholics for the past couple of months. And in fact, he has real problems among other groups: women, many of whom aren’t taking kindly to suggestions that Clinton bow out; Latinos, who he has flopped with most places outside of Illinois; and small-towners, who rejected in him by large margins in Texas and Pennsylvania.

Part of the obsession stems from Democratic leaders, who still like to regard themselves as heirs of Jefferson, Jackson, and FDR, tribunes of the little guy. In reality, Washington Democrats today care much more about abortion rights than, say, bankruptcy reform. But their self-image requires talking about working-class voters as though they're still at the center of the Democratic coalition — in election years, anyway.

But most of all, working-class whites have assumed center stage because of the media. Many of today’s veteran political reporters forged their careers in the late sixties and early seventies, when the Democratic Party split wide open, and have been on alert for a similar crackup ever since. And many of today’s talking heads no longer experience journalism as a working-class craft, and crave the authenticity of the hard hat. As a result, both groups have tended to mistake the clarity of the divisions in this year’s Democratic race for deep animosity.

Finally, reporters and analysts are talking about “working-class whites” because in a bizarre twist of political correctness, they don’t want to say “white racists.” A good chunk of voters themselves have been willing to admit that race has played a role in their decisions, and there’s no question that Clinton has benefited from their support in recent primaries. Last night, for example, 21 percent of Kentucky voters said race mattered to them, and 81 percent of that group cast ballots for Hillary. But for the most part, the media have used euphemisms to report news about race — when it comes to white people. (Favorite recent headline, from ABC News: “White Working-Class vs. Change in Indiana; Blacks Lift Obama to N.C. Victory.”)

Conflating racists and the white working class makes for bad campaign coverage. And it’s no favor to white voters, either. Blue-collars have plenty of reasons to prefer Clinton to Obama, beginning with the fact that many of them saw their incomes rise while her husband was president. But white working-class voters actually fall into two cohorts who behave quite differently. Southerners have abandoned the Democratic Party in droves in recent years, especially at the presidential level. (Here's a PDF of a study that helped establish exactly that.) Northern working-class whites, on the other hand, have remained pretty loyal to the Democrats.

This split is likely to grow even more pronounced in 2008. For cultural as well as racial reasons, working-class whites across Appalachia and southward have viewed Obama, the most exotic Democratic nominee ever, with extreme suspicion. But in the Northeast and northern Midwest — assuming Obama hits a partisan Democratic message — they will probably vote along economic lines and remain in the Democratic tent. Sure, industrial-state white voters have voted for Clinton in the primaries. But there’s no reason to think that McCain rather than Obama is their second choice. Obama now trails McCain among working-class white voters by seven points nationwide — the same margin as Hillary, and much better than the 16 points John Kerry lost by in 2004 and the 23 points Al Gore lost by in 2000.

Bottom line: Obama isn’t likely to get NASCAR dads, no matter what he does, but he is likely to get Joe Sixpacks, whatever he does. —Peter Keating