Does Obama Need Working Class Whites?


Democrats don't need to win a majority of working class whites to win the election in November, although in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, though, if history is a guide, they need to limit the Republican margin to less than 10 percentage points above the Democratic number.

COULD IT BE that Obama's coalition (young voters, professionals, crossover men, the educated, the economically stable middle class voters, African American voters) gives him enough of a cushion? Maybe Democrats won't need as many working class whites to win the election; correspondingly, the polarized primary has pushed them away from their nominee in general. What accounts for the disparity between the astonishingly high numbers of Democrats in states like Kentucky and West Virginia who say they'd vote for McCain -- and Obama's national lead in the polls? What is his coalition? And how does it translate into the 50 constituent parts of what a national lead actually is? Might Obama's strength in the popular vote be a reflection of Democratic energy in large states and Republican sloth in large states -- rather than a reflection of the coalition he needs to win the general election? States are more internally diverse than regions of states are. In other words -- are the demographics of Obama's coalition so skewed (in terms of previous coalitions) that his national lead will greatly overstate his relative strength in the electoral college? Or is Obama's new coalition so robust as to absorb some of the bleeding of white, working class men in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and still end up winning? Tentative points to support the latter theory can be found in Obama's primary victory in Iowa, where turnout far exceeded the expectations of everyone, in Wisconsin and Minnesota and Colorado, where Obama won handily but especially among Obama's core demographic groups, and in the way the campaign has been able to organize 75,000 rallies on a May Sunday in Oregon.

Maybe the coalition will stay the same, but the internal composition of the coalition will change dramatically. For all the talk of Obama forcing himself to somehow appeal to Jacksonian Democrats, as if one can, by sheer will, force someone to accept you, what Obama is offering might not be what those Democrats want. The conceit in all this is that we assume that Democrats all want the same thing... they just want to hear their politicians offer in ways that they can relate to. I don't think that's the case. In general, urban Democrats want different things (economically, culturally, intellectually) than Democrats who live outside cities. If anything, the more Obama tries to cast his lot with these voters, the more they reject him and the more the real coalitions harden.

It goes without saying that white working class voters in Wisconsin are different than white working class voters in Kentucky, too. So maybe the question for Obama is: which white working class voters should he spend time courting? Should he spend any time in West Virginia, where centuries of racism and cultural conservative have calcified and still govern vote choice; or in Wisconsin, where, although racial and cultural tensions remain, they are soft, in decline, and are subordinate to other concerns?

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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