Obama's Demographic Problem

When Barack Obama wins, he often wins big. This weekend's primaries in Maine, Nebraska, Washington state, and Louisiana played to his strengths in small caucus states and among African Americans. And demographics will favor him again this Tuesday in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, which will feature not only large African American communities but also significant numbers of affluent, highly educated voters and, in Virginia, independents.

But February's post-Super Tuesday primary schedule obscures Obama's central demographic weakness, one that could come back to haunt him in the crucial March and April contests of Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania: In the more populous, heterogeneous states where Obama's victories have been narrower or where he came in second, Hillary Clinton consistently outperformed him among white and Latino working-class voters. In Clinton's most significant Super Tuesday pick-ups, New Jersey, California, and Massachusetts, her margin of victory as much as doubled among voters making less than $50,000, as well as among those without college degrees.

Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania all have significant populations of working class whites, and Texas' Democratic electorate is also more than a third Latino, a group that has heavily favored Clinton. Each state is about 10 percent black, as is Missouri, where Obama eked out just a 1 percentage-point win last week.

Some supporters worry Obama is doing little to retool his message to reach the demographic groups that have challenged him. His talk of "hope" and "change" could sound risky to blue-collar voters more comfortable with the known quantity of the Clinton name. And Obama's recent attempts to frame his urban community organizing experience as a credential for turning around the economy could misfire. The average American is simply unfamiliar with the vocabulary of social-justice work, and many white working-class voters in particular—the vast majority of whom live in suburban and rural areas—feel disconnected from the problems of the inner city.

Indeed, Obama has long been pegged as a possible inheritor of the losing "wine track" (as opposed to "beer track") legacies of Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, and Howard Dean—reformers beloved by liberal intellectuals but ultimately unable to win the Democratic base of women, people of color, and working-class voters concerned about economic insecurity.

Obama, of course, improves upon the wine track formula in several important ways; he enjoys unprecedented support among African Americans and voters under 30, and, ever since the Iowa caucuses, it's been clear he holds special sway over the upper Midwest. In part, that's because the Obama campaign's field operation is adept at organizing activist Democrats to participate in caucuses, which are time-consuming and favor highly educated, upper-income voters. But Obama's rhetoric of unity does seem to resonate in the Midwest. Ohio and Pennsylvania have some cultural similarities to Minnesota, Missouri, and Iowa, which could bode well for his campaign.

But perhaps Obama's biggest advantage over past wine-track candidates is his fundraising muscle, and the extent of establishment support he's picked up along his journey from anti-war upstart to leading contender. "Obama's candidacy is a one-time experience that we have not seen before," said Ed Reilly, president of the consulting firm FD and a veteran of the Bill Bradley, Dick Gephardt, and John Kerry presidential campaigns. "This is a well-funded insurgent, and in all those other [wine track] situations, you were dealing with a huge resource differential."

Obama's funds will be critical to his effort to overcome the name recognition gap he still faces, in large part through radio and television advertisements. Though most Democratic primary voters now know who Barack Obama is, many know very little about his personal history or political platform. That contrasts starkly with Hillary Clinton, who has been on the national stage for 16 years.

"Hillary Clinton's support among working-class voters isn't necessarily a deficiency of the Obama campaign," said former Democratic pollster Mark Blumenthal. "It speaks to the popularity of the Clintons with that group, a stronger loyalty."

Many have expected Obama to chip away at that loyalty with pointed reminders that Fortune magazine named Clinton the candidate of corporate America last year, and that Bill Clinton's administration supported free trade deals, such as NAFTA, which contributed to the loss of American jobs. Instead, it is Hillary Clinton who rails more often against off-shoring. She has moved quickly to assume the populist mantle John Edwards surrendered when he dropped out of the race on Jan. 30, and in laundry-list policy speeches, she often mentions income inequality, making higher education more affordable, and passing a new GI bill.

Meanwhile, Obama's advertisements remain largely focused on the candidate's biography and post-partisan vision. In the run-up to Super Tuesday, a television commercial targeting California Latinos mentioned Obama's community organizing experience in Chicago and his personal experience with ethnic "scapegoating." Clinton's Spanish-language California ad took a totally different tack, promising to provide health insurance, solve the economic crisis, and bring down the cost of living. Newer television ads from the Clinton campaign play off fears of an economic recession, and promise to decrease mortgage foreclosures, create jobs, and cut taxes for the middle class.

Obama, too, has a similar, detailed plan to turn around the economy—it's just that he isn't talking about recession anxiety. In part, that may be because he wants to remain consistent with the positive message of change that has brought him this far, even in the face of bad news on the economic front.

"He has to be careful; he can't take a few old John Edwards speeches off the Web and start reading them, because a big part of his appeal is authenticity," said Guy Molyneux, a partner at the public opinion firm Hart Research. "A transparent change in his message might seem too Clinton-like."

Instead, Obama is likely to continue painting both Clinton and John McCain as "politics as usual," occasionally folding that rhetoric into a message with more overt references to what Edwards called the "two Americas."

That's exactly what he did at Virginia's Jefferson-Jackson dinner on Saturday, where he spoke after winning the Washington state, Louisiana, Nebraska, and Virgin Islands primaries. "[McCain] once opposed George Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest few, who don't need them and didn't even ask for them. He said they were too expensive and unwise, that we should never cut taxes for the wealthy at a time of war," Obama said. "And he was absolutely right then. But somewhere along the lines the wheels came off the Straight Talk Express, because he now supports the very same tax cuts he voted against. That's what happens when you spend too long in Washington."

National polls show Obama with a small advantage over Clinton against McCain. In part, that's because of Clinton's deficit with male voters, but that would be a very difficult topic for Obama to broach. "I don't see him out with a shotgun and a hunting jacket," joked Molyneux. "But now voters know who the GOP nominee will be, and he can go out there and verbally beat the crap out of John McCain, and start to position himself as a plausible opponent."

With a campaign built more around unity than anger, "beating the crap" out of anyone hasn't exactly been Barack Obama's style. But his ability to portray himself as a reliable fighter for the working class could determine the outcome of the Democratic nominating contest. Ohioans, Texans, and Pennsylvanians are taking note.

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