Blue Collar Whites: Does Obama Need Them?

Washington Matters

Blue Collar Whites: Does Obama Need Them?

When tonight's results from West Virginia show blue collar whites went overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, the TV pundits stuck with hours of air time to fill will no doubt speculate on what Barack Obama needs to do to broaden his appeal in November. But the more important question is, does he need to even try?


Here's a dirty little secret: Obama can win in November without very many blue collar whites. And anyway, whether he tries to win them over or not, it may not matter much. He'll still get many who are determined to see a Democrat in the White House and he'll have a chance of slim to none in winning over those who just don't trust or like him.

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You can debate the reasons why working class whites without college educations are voting for Hillary -- maybe they're racists, maybe they think Obama is too elite or too liberal or as analyst Rhodes Cook recently put it, maybe they were horrified at his bowling. But whatever their reason, the decision of many working class whites to go Democratic or Republican in November will have little to do with Obama and more to do with trends, issues and feelings.


Consider this: Voting in the U.S. has been increasingly partisan in recent elections, with minimal crossover. In 2004, 90% of voters who identified with the GOP voted for George Bush and 90% who identified with the Democrats voted for John Kerry. Compare that to the three presidential elections between 1972 and 1980, when an average of  30% of Democrats went for the GOP candidate, according to political scientist Alan I. Abramowitz. That's largely because the makeup of the Democratic Party has changed. Today, conservatives represent only 9% of self-identified Democratic voters, compared to 25% in 1992, suggesting the age of the Nixon or Reagan Democrat is long over.


That may be because they finally gave up on the Democrats and became Republicans or it may be that  they changed their views -- but again it doesn't really matter. Democrats hold a huge advantage over Republicans in claimed and real party affiliation, so even if they've lost the Reagan Democrats, all they have to do is hold on to enough of their self-identified voters and cut reasonably well into the independent bloc to do just fine in November. And given the strong desire to change the direction set by Republicans over the past eight years, many independents are squarely on the Democrats' side.


Another way to look at it is to consider the results in Ohio in 2004, as laid out by the Los Angeles Times. Bush narrowly carried the state, in part by winning 16% of the African-American vote. This year, the black vote will be considerably larger and Obama's share will be close to 100%. That will more than make up for the likely loss of many blue collar whites who defect to McCain.


This isn't to suggest that Obama doesn't need to work on his "elitist" image and try to win over as much of the white vote as he can by offering economic programs that appeal to working class voters. How successful he is can make a big difference in some swing states.


But the fact is that some of these whites will never vote for Obama. Fortunately for him, though, it's also a fact that he can put together a winning coalition without them. He's already made a good start in the primaries. He just needs to build upon it.