Going after the white, working class vote: the real “swing voters” in the presidential race

Posted on July 25, 2008. Filed under: Presidential Election |

If the presidential primaries taught us anything, it’s that both Senators Obama and Clinton relied on distinctly different constituencies to carry them through the state-by-state contests. For Sen. Obama, he ran well with African-Americans, white collar professionals, young voters, first-time voters, voters who are hungry for “change”, and higher income voters. For Clinton, she won with Catholics, females, Jewish voters, senior citizens, lower income households, blue collar “Reagan Democrats” who are more culturally conservative, Hispanics and voters who rated “experience” more important than making “change” for the sake of change.

To Obama, winning back the Clinton-type blue-collar voters that propelled her to victories in big industrial states like Ohio, PA, Indiana, West Virginia and Kentucky are the real prize for winning in November. For instance, in the key battleground state of Pennsylvania, Clinton won 70 percent of the vote or more in 15 counties in the mountains, including the anthracite region in the east and the bituminous coal country in the west – and some of these are counties that are 3:1 Democrat in voter registration.

Since the primaries, national polls show Obama is now running well with females, so it seems as if he has restored the traditional “gender gap” we typically see in national elections, where Democrats run double digit points ahead of Republicans with the female vote. Obama also polls well with Jewish voters despite previous concerns. However, males – and white working-class males in particular, are one of the key remaining swing votes up for grabs. According to newspaper accounts, in the state-by-state primaries Clinton and Obama split the white working class vote, with Clinton winning them in Georgia, Missouri, and New York, and Obama winning them in New Hampshire, California, Maryland and Virginia.

National polls show that pluralities of white, male voters don’t like Obama, and don’t relate to his background and perceived values. In contrast, by a 2-1 margin they express positive views about McCain and identify with his values and background. To make matters worse for Obama, McCain is showing strength with these voters because of his military record, the perception that he is more conservative on social issues, and Obama’s alienation of many of them due to comments he made in the primary elections alleging that voters in rural towns “cling to guns, religion, etc.,” when they are economically distressed. In Pennsylvania, according to most recent polls Obama holds a small lead statewide, but enough undecided vote is still out there to swing the election to McCain. In our estimation, the real battleground is not Southeastern PA, where one in three votes are cast, and where polls currently show Obama posting margins equal to what John Kerry got in the 2004 election, but rather the Southwest/Pittsburgh media market, where white, working class males are fertile ground. In this region, which accounts for about 22% of the vote, McCain is beating Obama, and some of these are areas that are 2:1 Democrat in voter registration.

If McCain can run well in this region (as Bush did), do decent in the Democrat-leaning Northeast where high concentrations of blue collar voters also reside, and at least keep it close in the Southeast he may be able to pull off an upset. So what do we know about these blue collar white males, or “swing” voters? According to Wall Street Journal reports, they once were the bedrock of FDR’s New Deal in the 1930’s. Then they became so-called “Reagan Democrats” in the 80’s (the term comes from white, blue collar union voters originally in the state of Michigan that switched allegiance to vote for Reagan and helped deliver the state for him), until Bill Clinton won many of them back in ’92. Two years later, the WSJ purported, many of them became “angry white males” resentful of affirmative action and the women’s movement and contributed to the Contract with America for the GOP gains in ’94. In the ’06 mid term elections, when the anti-GOP sentiment peaked over dissatisfaction with the US Congress, runaway spending, the war in Iraq and numerous corruption and congressional scandals, they voted Democrat in record numbers and helped flip the Congress back to the Democrats for the first time since Reagan was president. In terms of their weight in numbers, they make up one quarter of the electorate nationwide and are largely those with incomes less than $50,000, no college degree and unionized. So how can the presidential candidates win them over? For Obama, more than his positions on issues he has to win them over with character. Voting for president is more about the person, not the issues. This means that more than his positions on health care, free trade, or the war in Iraq, Obama needs to convince these voters he’s not all that different than they are. That he cares about the same things they care about: making ends meet, putting his kids through college and keeping the country’s moral compass from veering too far off to the left. This doesn’t mean they don’t care about the key issues facing the nation, but we don’t think it’s their litmus test.

For McCain, it’s really the opposite strategy. These voters already like him, can identify with him, and are comfortable with him given his many years of service to the country. What they don’t know is if he has the right answers to the tough questions facing the country. How to bring down gas prices? How to bring the troops home from Iraq with honor? What can he do to lift the economy out of its doldrums? Right now, he’s winning this group and they seem to be giving him the benefit of the doubt, or kind of a “pass” on these issues. But they’re patiently waiting to see what else the candidates have to offer, and which ever candidate closes the sale faster with this group could be our next president.

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