Philip Maddocks: Obama now struggling to win over white, working-class non-voters
Though he is now the presumptive nominee and will presumably inherit the support of most of the white, working-class voters who supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, recent polls are revealing a new problem for Barack Obama: a troubling inability to win over white, working-class non-voters.
A recent national poll — the first of its kind — indicated that white, working-class non-voters, by a margin of 12 percentage points, were more likely to cite John McCain over Mr. Obama as the presidential candidate they are most likely not to vote for.
"This has been a segment of the voting public that has been largely ignored by the pollsters and so their influence has gone largely unnoticed," said one polling expert.
An Obama spokesman said the candidate is aware of the new polling data, and while the campaign is planning to address the concerns of "this all-important class of American voters," the spokesman said Mr. Obama is confident he will continue to make inroads with that non-voting voter bloc between now and the election in November.
"We think we have a message that appeals to working-class voters and non-voters alike, and it’s just a matter of getting it out there and giving the non-voters a chance to ignore it," said the Obama campaign spokesman. "We’re not expecting to get their vote. We just want them to be thinking of our candidate when they decide not to vote. These people play a vital role in our Democracy and it’s important that we acknowledge that."
Mr. McCain, who attended fundraising events in Washington and Virginia on Monday, issued a statement criticizing Mr. Obama’s approach.
"While hard-working families of working-class non-voters are hurting and non-voting employers are vulnerable, Barack Obama is talking to them," a McCain spokesman, Tucker Bounds, said in a statement.. "Barack Obama doesn’t understand the American non-voter. He wants to change that, and that’s change we just can’t afford."
On Saturday, Mr. Obama shed his tie for a campaign event near Philadelphia, where he first met privately with a local family struggling to understand why it should vote, and then spoke publicly to an enthusiastic gathering of non-voters while standing in front of a backdrop with the message "Non-Votes That Work For You."
Mr. Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, said large rallies in the primaries had energized the candidate and his supporters, but were also on some level "isolating" for working-class non-voters, who chose not to attend or to watch the spectacles on television. In the general election, Mr. Obama wanted to interact more intimately with working-class non-voters. But Mr. Axelrod also said he expected Mr. Obama would return to the large-audience format this summer and fall.
Having finally shaken himself loose of his opponents for the Democratic nomination, Mr. Obama began the general election campaign with a two-week, white, working-class non-voting tour that sent him through non-voting swing states, vital to his campaign to get more white working-class non-voters to not vote for him.
Democrats learned from Al. Gore's Electoral College defeat in 2000 that winning over voters is not everything, and party strategists seem determined not to repeat the mistake.
But not all the experts are as readily convinced that Obama’s low polling among white, working-class non-voters is as important as some are making it out to be.
Though working-class non-voting Democrats once represented a centerpiece of the party vote, they have shrunk as a proportion of the information age-economy and as a proportion of the Democratic base.
Gore lost working-class non-voting white voters by 17 percentage points in 2000, even while winning the national popular vote. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts lost them by 23 points in 2004, while running within three points of President Bush over all. One expert suggests that Mr. Obama can win the presidency if he comes within 10 to 12 percentage points of Mr. McCain with these voters.
A Republican pollster, agrees, saying recent focus groups among white, working-class non-voters in Florida, Michigan and Missouri found ''very significant'' resistance to Mr. Obama but that that resistance need not be fatal to Obama's candidacy.
"'The question is whether they'll be counterbalanced by the new voters and young voters he brings in," he said.
Is white, working-class non-voting resistance in Ohio and Pennsylvania going to be enough to prevent Mr. Obama from winning, asks one Democratic adviser. ''I think the answer is, not.''
Philip Maddocks can be reached email@example.com.