Will Obama Win Enough White Votes to Beat McCain?

Hillary and her supporters aren't giving up on her arguments that she's the most electable candidate because she's won among blue-collar whites. She told USA Today in an article published today:

"I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on," she said in an interview with USA Today. As evidence, Clinton cited an Associated Press article "that found how Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me."

"There's a pattern emerging here," she said.

Clinton's blunt remarks about race came a day after primaries in Indiana and North Carolina dealt symbolic and mathematical blows to her White House ambitions.

Yet Obama doesn't need a majority of blue-collar white voters to win the general election, and he's unlikely to win them all over. All he needs is enough whites in his coalition of liberals,concerned middle-class people worried about the economy, some fed-up blue-collar workers, enthusiasic young people and college students, and the 90%-plus of African-Americans to piece together a winning coalition. Indeed, he's competitive or ahead in several of the states that Hillary says that only she can win, including Ohio and Pennsyvlania. In fact, it's worth remembering that no Democratic presidential candidate since LBJ has won a majority of white voters. The search for these blue-collar "Reagan Democrats" to stay
with the Democrats may be as elusive as the search for the "NASCAR Dads" before the 2004 election, who had previously voted less than 30% for Democrats. As an ABC pollster observed before that Kerry vs. Bush election:

When we run data from our recent polls we find that married, middle- and lower-income white men account for a single-digit share of the national population, and support President Bush in precisely the same proportion as all white men. (Make it rural white men, and it goes down to low single digits.) And white men, particularly Southern white men, are a solidly Republican group, highly unlikely to swing anywhere, anyhow.

For good measure, we checked rural, suburban or small city married white men with children and incomes under $50,000 in the 2000 exit poll. They accounted for 2 percent of all voters, and supported Bush over Gore by 70 percent to 27 percent. You really want to call this a swing voter group?

Apparently white people hold a grudge for a long time: ever since Democrats pushed for African-American voting rights and integration, most whites haven't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate for over 40 years, even as the racial animus got translated into a cleaned-up anti-govenment, anti-crime, anti-tax message. The full story is told in such brilliant books as Chain Reaction co-authored by Huffington Post political director Thomas Edsall, well-chronicled in this early 90s' essay on the Democats' increasingly alienated white working-class and middle-class supporters who now potentially can be won back in hard times, especially after the Republican crack-up.

This Thursday, on the weekly "D'Antoni and Levine Show," with my co-host Portland broadcaster and HuffPost blogger, Tom D'Antoni, we explored these racial dynamics in the primary races ahead and in the general election. The show featured Washington, D.C. analyst Ian Fried, who is also Director of Blue Catapult Political Action Committee (bluecatapult.com), which supports Democratic congressional candidates challenging Republican-held seats. In the past he has worked in Congress and taught courses at various universities, including American University in Washington. You can read Ian's observations and insights in his posts to The Seminal blog (www.theseminal.com).

Fried is one of the best number-crunchers this side of NBC's political director Chuck Todd, and he also explored the impact Obama and Clinton could have on House and Senate races in the fall, making the case that he will be the stronger candidate.

Actually, it seems, Hillary isn't just playing the race card, she's playing the race deck -- throwing everything she can against the wall about Obama to see what sticks, in a last-ditch effort to convinces the superdelegates. But a nuanced look at the racial dynamics at Real Clear Politics, found that Obama's reduced some of the defections among whites since Ohio and Pennsylvania. That outlet's analyst found:

Clinton did about as well in Indiana as she did in Pennsylvania and Ohio with white men, white Protestants, and seniors. However, beyond this, she suffered a decline among her best groups. Notice in particular her decline among white women, white Catholics, and union households. Basically, the core of her voting bloc was still with her, but Obama picked off a larger portion of it than he did in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Some observers argue by speaking so bluntly about race, and invoking Jesse Helms/George Wallace-type comments about "hard-working" white people, she's playing to racial and class stereotypes again. At the Moderate Voice, blogger Elrod points out:

Well, if the USA Today interview with Clinton today is accurate, then she just made an appalling gaffe that goes well beyond the Bittergate comment.

She made the case for her continuation in the campaign by referencing her ability to win a broader coalition against the Republicans in the fall. One element of that coalition that has responded to her, and not to Obama, is non-college educated whites - particularly older ones. But instead of using the typical "blue collar voters" frame, she employed explicitly racial language that closely comports with classic racist rhetoric from the likes of George Wallace and Jesse Helms in the past.

She said, without baiting, that she wins "working, hard-working Americans, white Americans," and Obama cannot reach such voters. The implication is, of course, that hard-working goes hand-in-hand with white. Never mind that Obama has won hard-working black Americans, or that he's won whites everywhere outside the South and the Rust Belt.

The "hard-working Americans, white Americans" is a classic Wallace/Helms/Buchanan equation of whiteness with hard work and honesty. The opposite is either effete white intellectuals who don't work, or lazy blacks who also don't work. In fact, the Reagan coalition GOP even dropped the word "white," knowing that "hard-working" and "law-abiding" already implied, in their minds, white people.

I don't think Hillary Clinton really believes that only white people are hard-working. But she has to know that such phrasing is downright toxic given the racially polarized electorate in the primary. She has been accused - often unfairly - of race-baiting throughout the campaign. But this comment takes the cake and one can only hope it was a slip of the tongue and nothing else.

What makes this worse is the timing. She thinks the next big race is West Virginia and Kentucky (and Oregon) where she assumes that appeals to white working class voters are especially appropriate. The problem is that the people she needs to appeal to are the superdelegates, not voters in states with minimal delegate counts. She is trying to make the case for her electability to the superdelegates. But in doing so, she is treading on poisonous water that must make Democratic superdelegates cringe.

Will Hillary split apart the Democratic Party by demanding the full-seating of all Florida and Michigan delegates? Can Obama win enough whites in the primaries ahead to make his case as the stronger candidate in the fall in November? Can he help build a Democratic majority that is truly powerful enough to move a progressive agenda? Those questions are still to be definitively answered, but a head start towards understanding them came today with Ian Fried's trenchant analysis, now online at BlogTalk Radio.

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You can hear more about this year's election controversies, voting rights and the latest political trends on "The D'Antoni and Levine Show," with my co-host Tom D'Antoni, a Huffington Post blogger, every Thursday at 5:30 p.m., EST, at BlogTalk Radio