Like many others I was surprised to read Mayhill Fowler's account of the Obama fundraiser last week. But unlike many who read the article it never occurred to me to question her journalistic integrity or why she was at the fundraiser. My initial reaction was as a Democrat: Why was Obama trying to explain Pennsylvania voters to Californians? From my life experience, talking about people behind their backs usually gets you in trouble. And, so it did with Senator Obama.
The problem with Senator Obama's statements is that they made a value judgment about one segment of voters while he discussed them in a seemingly cozy setting with another segment of voters. He seemed to make the assumption that the people he was talking to at the San Francisco fundraiser were more in tune with his own values and that he could, therefore, unburden himself and freely discuss the troubles he was having with "small town" Pennsylvania voters who did not share his own values. You've seen the quote:
"You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them," Obama said. "And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, 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."
These are value judgments. And saying that people "cling" to a way of life that, in fact, pre-dates the loss of jobs, pre-dates these presidential administrations, is to deride them and their culture. And this is exactly why Senator Obama is having a hard time connecting with these voters -- he does not understand their culture or traditions. If he discusses their lifestyle in these terms it shows that he is missing the positive values in their world. Rural, small town life is not all about guns or religion or disliking people who are different. It's certainly not all about bitterness. As someone who lives in a small town I can tell you that there are many positives to life here, even if you don't own a gun or go to church every Sunday.
Don't tell me where Senator Obama lived or what he did. His statements show that he does not understand small town life or rural voters.
Here where I live, in east Tennessee, the electorate is overwhelmingly Republican. George W. Bush won here in my county in 2004 by more than a 2 to 1 margin, even though this area had hundreds of people deploying to Iraq at the time of the election. Perhaps because of that deployment, in fact. Patriotic fervor and support for the "commander-in-chief" was at an all-time high in 2004. It was verboten to speak ill of the Republican administration at that time if you had any connection to a military family. Statewide, Bush won by 57% to 43% in 2004. In fact, Bush won here in 2000 by four points over Al Gore, even though Gore is from Tennessee (it still crushes me that Gore lost the state in 2000). So Bush actually improved his performance in Tennessee in 2004.
According to the latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey (April 6, 2008), John McCain is leading both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the state: McCain leads Obama 58%-31%; he leads Clinton 52%-38%.
McCain is viewed favorably by 65% of Volunteer State voters while Clinton earns favorable reviews from 45%. The numbers for Obama are bleak--39% favorable and 59% unfavorable. That latter figure includes 40% with a Very Unfavorable opinion of the Democratic frontrunner.
Tennessee is rated "Safely Republican." I would like to change that.
According to that same Rasmussen Reports survey Tennessee voters consider the economy and the Iraq war top issues. But, speaking as someone who lives here, they don't necessarily want to have their values misunderstood either. Certainly not everyone who lives in Tennessee is in a small town. Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga are all large, sprawling urban areas. But much of the state is still rural and there are plenty of small town voters with small town issues, concerns and values that have much in common with those of small town voters across the country. Here in Tennessee Hillary Clinton won the primary over Barack Obama by 53.8% to 40.5% this year.
If Senator Obama wants to connect with small town voters -- and they are very important to winning in November, even if he can't win Pennsylvania -- then he needs to understand that the Democratic party is not composed solely of young, liberal voters. People also vote Democratic who are older and who are moderate. There are even Reagan Democrats that the party could use. They still exist, though they have gone by different names. If the Democratic party wants to win and be inclusive, it's not just for the young and extremely liberal.
Say what you will, Senator Clinton is connecting with small town voters. She's not the candidate who has now been branded with the title of "elitist." No, it's not about how much money you have. It's not even about where you were raised or where you went to school. It's perception. Working and middle class voters are identifying with Senator Clinton. Senator Obama is appealing to a different segment of the electorate. If he wants to win, he has to broaden his appeal and try to understand small town voters better than he showed at his fundraiser in San Francisco.