Friday, April 18, 2008

Breakthrough Election? (II)

Wednesday’s crucial debate between Clinton and Obama points to difficulties the presumptive Democratic nominee may face in November. Democrats need to win back white, working class voters that only white Southern Democratic nominees Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have successfully attracted in the last 40 years. The Washington Post’s Marie Cocco, a Clinton backer, smells Obama trouble with this group, zeroing in on Obama words that betray his elite separation from blue-collar whites. First, Cocco discusses Obama’s March 18 speech defending his relationship to the Rev. Wright, then she looks at his famous San Francisco remarks about working class “clinging.” Cocco writes:

 five seemingly insignificant words in [Obama's March 18 speech] struck me: "As far as they're concerned." This is how Obama prefaced his remarks about whites of immigrant stock whose experience is that, "as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything" and they've grasped whatever success they've achieved on their own. It is an awkward qualifier, suggesting that this is a perspective or a belief, and not necessarily the truth.

 [Obama says] working-class Americans living in small towns are bitter about their economic stress, and so they "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti- immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." [Obama] has tried to talk his way out of this jam in part by pointing out that clinging to religious faith is a good thing. But what of those he says cling to "antipathy to people who aren't like them"? The word for such people is racist, and Obama knows it.

Princeton professor Larry Bartels has researched the precise group Obama is said to have offended—small-town, working class voters lacking a college degree. (Significantly, Bartels didn’t limit his working class sample to whites only.) Bartels concluded that not only do these small town Americans vote on economic as opposed to social issues, but also that they historically divide their votes nearly evenly between Republicans and Democrats. If Bartels is right, then Obama’s remarks have done him little permanent damage. If Cocco's right, then Obama may be losing a constituency Democrats needed in the past.

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