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Obama's battle for the battlers

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Friday, 2 May 2008

Hillary Clinton won last week's Pennsylvania primary on the back of white working class votes. Despite the victory, her campaign is on life support. She still only has about a 10 per cent chance or less of becoming the Democratic Party nominee. However, as long as a path to victory is conceivable, Senator Clinton will continue to home in on Senator Obama's weaknesses, and her victory in Pennsylvania has highlighted one of them: his continuing lack of appeal to white working class voters.

Hillary Clinton is well placed to exploit Obama's lack of appeal with this bloc of voters because of her husband's presidency (remember her campaign is part old girl power and part Clinton Mark II). Bill Clinton's style, policies and the generally good economic times enjoyed during his presidency created an affinity for Clinton among white working class Americans.

This affinity has often been lacking for other Democrat politicians like Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, Michael Dukakis and John Kerry. Since 1968 the white working class has tended to prefer Republican presidents with Clinton's third way presidency being the exception to this general rule.


How did the Republicans become the party of the working class when they had been so effectively labelled in the 1930s the "economic royalists" by America's working class hero Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt?

Some experts have argued that in the 1960s cultural issues started to trump economic issues, while others claim racism ended the Democrats' hold on the white working class vote. The latest academic consensus is that working class Americans simply became wealthier and more selfish and thus turned to the Republicans. I would argue that it was all of the above, plus the way religion affected working class voting preferences.

An economic based understanding of US electoral politics would define the left leaning Democrats as the party of the working class and the right leaning Republicans as the party of business and wealthy Americans.

Until the 1960s this formulation was basically correct. One of the key legacies of that era was to elevate the discussion of personal, social and cultural issues as a crucial element of electoral politics. As the Democrats pushed for not just black civil rights but women's rights and welfare rights, the Republicans took their chance to appeal to the working class American who had conservative social values. By the 1970s the Republicans were portraying the Democrats as the party of acid, abortion and amnesty.

These strategies often worked. The white working class were an important element in the "silent majority" that brought Nixon to power, and Ronald Reagan with his emphasis on patriotism, family values, welfare abuse and tax cuts garnered a large share of the working class voters. These voters were famously dubbed the "Reagan Democrats" and have been followed more recently by George W. Bush's "NASCAR Dads".

This history creates two problems for Barack Obama. First, since the 1960s US campaigns have increasingly become fixated on so-called values issues. This has led to Obama facing questions like: Why don't you wear an American flag pin on your lapel? Why are your wife and pastor so anti-American? Why did you say people "cling to guns or religion"? What are your associations with a member of the radical anti-Vietnam war group the Weather Underground? These questions are often manufactured and trivial and imply guilt by association.


Obama's instincts, like those of Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, are to ignore such questions, seeing them as demeaning and trivial (just as Dukakis ignored the Willie Horton ads and Kerry dismissed the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth). However, the past suggests that this approach is unsuccessful and that it is better to confront such negative and often deceitful claims head on, just as Obama did with his recent speech about Pastor Wright and being black in America. The length of the campaign has helped Obama craft answers to these difficult and cunning attacks.

During the next few weeks expect a speech from Obama where he defends his patriotism and his connections with the common folk. It will be a success if he speaks from the heart. He has managed this very well until more recent times when he has occasionally sounded more like a professor analysing American society than a candidate offering change. Any further signs of elitism will be leapt on by both Clinton and McCain.

The second problem is one of raw numbers rather than perceptions (and the inevitable media-created stories). In the 2004 election Bush won the white working-class vote by an impressive 23 percentage points. This margin is one that Obama would want to reduce in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania to win in November. A clearer articulation of policies on health care, job creation and mortgage stress could help Obama achieve this.

Lastly, a running mate who instantly appeals to white working class Americans might be useful.

None of these problems are insurmountable for Obama because if chosen as the Democratic Party nominee he is well placed to exploit John McCain's many weaknesses.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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