Hillary Clinton's "Connection" to White Voters: What Could It Possibly Be?

In an interview published yesterday at Talking Points Memo, Mitch Stewart, an adviser to the nascent Hillary Clinton quasi-campaign, argued that Clinton could expand the map of states that Barack Obama won, putting more places in play. The reason, he said, that "Secretary Clinton has more appeal than any other Democrat looking at running is that with white working-class voters, she does have a connection." The idea of Clinton's "connection" to the white working class is something you hear now and again, and I think it's worth examining in some detail. Because it raises some uncomfortable questions that I doubt the Clinton campaign wants to confront. Something tells me she isn't going to be putting "Hillary Clinton: A Democrat, But White!" on her bumper stickers. But that's the essence of what we're talking about about here.

It seems like a long time ago now, but during the 2008 primaries things got extremely racially charged for a while, at a time when the Clinton campaign was spiralling downward and Obama was hoping to deliver the finishing blows. In May of that year, Clinton gave a remarkably blunt interview to USA Today:

Hillary Rodham Clinton vowed Wednesday to continue her quest for the Democratic nomination, arguing she would be the stronger nominee because she appeals to a wider coalition of voters—including whites who have not supported Barack Obama in recent contests.

"I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on," she said in an interview with USA TODAY. As evidence, Clinton cited an Associated Press article "that found how Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me."

She got a lot of criticism for seeming to equate "hard-working" and "white," but what was so surprising at the time was how forthrightly she was saying that she could win the general election because white people supported her, while Obama couldn't because those voters weren't going to be able to cast a ballot for him. That came after a long string of micro-controversies over things that Clinton said that African-Americans took offense at (e.g. this), not to mention a truckload of inane commentary about whether Obama could "relate" to downscale white voters because, among other things, he wasn't a good bowler.

And it's true that Clinton did substantially better than Obama in the 2008 primaries among white voters. Look, for instance, at this graph showing exit poll results from The New York Times (you can find an interactive version here):

Even if we set aside Arkansas where Clinton has roots, the differences are pretty stark, and with an exception here or there, the more southern the state, the bigger Clinton's margin was among white voters. She beat Obama by 49 points among whites in Kentucky, 47 points in Alabama, 46 points in West Virginia, 44 points in Mississippi, and at least 20 points in nine other states of the 36 where exit polls were conducted. Even as he was heading for victory, the only state where Obama beat Clinton by 20 points among whites was Vermont.

Now let's be honest about what was going on there. What, precisely, was the nature of Hillary Clinton's "connection" to working-class white voters that produced those margins? Was it the fact that her pappy was an Appalachian coal miner? The years she spent playing steel guitar in the Grand Ole Opry house band? Her encyclopedic knowledge of Lawrence Welk trivia, with which she would wow the crowds at campaign rallies?

No, it was none of those things. It was something much simpler: unlike Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton is white. The totality of her "connection" is the fact that people who won't vote for a black man might vote for her, just because of the color of her skin.

That brings us to 2016. Democrats want to find ways to appeal to the white working class, because it's still a huge group of voters. Even if you can lose them and still win the White House—the diverse Democratic coalition is enough to prevail, as Barack Obama showed—if they could reduce those losses but hold on to their margins among blacks, Latinos, Asians, young people, etc., it would be all but impossible to lose. When Democrats talk about appealing to those voters, it's almost always about refining their economic message to speak to people's anxieties and concerns. Which is very important, but it's important for all voters.  

I can almost guarantee that Clinton will do better among the white working class than Obama did, and yes, it's about her race and his. While there are a variety of ways to tease out the relationship of racism and voting, and while it's also true that Obama's race gained him some votes, the consensus of political scientists who have studied the question seems to be that being black cost Obama around 3 percent of the vote (see here, for example). That may not seem like much, but in an electorate as closely divided as ours is a huge effect.

To see it in another way, here's a graph I made for a post a couple of months ago, showing the difference between what Democratic presidential candidates got among all voters and what they got among white voters.

Between 1968—the first election after all of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society initiatives and reforms—and 2004, Democratic candidates did on average 5.5 points worse among white voters than among the electorate as a whole. But Barack Obama did 10 points worse in 2008 and 12 points worse in 2012. If Hillary Clinton brought that gap back to 5 or 6 points, there are a couple of states Obama lost in one or both of his elections, like North Carolina or Missouri, that she might have a chance of winning.

But let's not dance around it. Should that happen, it will be for one reason: Hillary Clinton is white, and there are a certain number of white voters who would vote for her but not for Barack Obama. It won't be because of some deep "connection" she has cultivated and earned over a quarter century as a national figure. We should all be honest about it.

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