Political Positions

Ron Walters: An Open Letter to Barack Obama

Political Positions

This week's "Political Positions" submission comes from Dr. Ron Walters. In it, Walters offers advice to Barack Obama as he figures out the numbers game, which is vital to winning the White House.

Walters is the Distinguished Leadership Scholar, director of the African American Leadership Center, and professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park. One of his latest books is titled Freedom is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates and American Presidential Politics.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama addresses people during a town hall meeting in Boca Raton, Florida. Joe Raedle, Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Raedle, Getty Images

I write this "open letter" to Barack Obama, because I am concerned about one recently written by Harold Ford Jr., urging Obama to try harder to connect with white blue-collar voters by engaging them in states like Kentucky and Indiana in the fall elections. And while I would not argue that he should ignore these states, I worry that the agenda he would use to attract conservative voters could weaken the force of change.

To begin with, worry about the blue collar vote is based on the perception of their strength as a part of the Democratic base. But this year will probably not reflect the 1980s, when they went over to the Republican party en masse, or in 1992 when they were a large part of the Ross Perot vote.

This year, blue collar whites are hurting more than any other time in recent memory and more than any other part of the political demographic with: significant job losses, high prices for everything from milk to gas, the loss of their homes and disaffection with the war policies of the Bush administration.

They have been let down by Republicans on both domestic and foreign policy and although about 20 percent in recent polls have said they would vote McCain if Obama were the choice in the fall, the issue is what would happen to the rest.

I think this year the blue collar constituency is likely to split. One group could go with McCain; another group may buy in to Obama's promise of change to an agenda that favors lower income citizens; and still another group, frustrated by the choices, is likely to stay home. This means that while the split in their votes may be a threat to the Democratic base it could be neutralized by the dynamism created by the Obama campaign.

There is the distinct possibility that a great deal of the loss of blue collar whites could be made up by the new coalition that Obama promises to bring into the fall election. Estimates by the Associated Press are that the new voters Democrats have attracted in the primaries thus far amount to 3.5 to 4 million.

If this proportion holds up in the fall elections, one would have to triple the number of new voters to about 10 to 12 million. This substantial number of change voters should be the focus of the campaign rather than lavishing resources on voters in the conservative heartland of the nation that will most likely not vote for Barack Obama in any case.

The other path to increasing the change constituency is to focus on enhancing the turnout of those groups that have shown they are more likely to vote for a Democratic ticket — blacks and Hispanics. To be sure, some of the increase in new primary election voters is reflected in the increase in blacks and Hispanics, but more could be done in the general election to increase these numbers, especially among the youth who are trending away from the Republican party by astounding numbers.

In 2004, 35 percent of blacks and 66 percent of Hispanics were not registered, and 44 percent of blacks and 72 percent of Hispanics that were eligible did not vote. The addition of new voters to the Democratic base should put into perspective. Much of the speculation about Hillary Clinton's strength in so-called swing states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania came from considering the new states such voters might deliver.

Finally, some of Obama's perceived weaknesses are based on head-to-head polls during the primary season, but the tradition is that these numbers do not necessarily hold up in the fall. For example, in 1998 Michael Dukakis was ahead of George H. W. Bush but Bush won; in 1992, Bill Clinton trailed him in the primary elections but Clinton won; and in 2000, Al Gore was ahead of George Bush but Bush was given the election.

Therefore, the moderate wing of the Democratic party and the punditry that seems obsessed with blue collar voters should not dictate to the Obama campaign a strategy that both feeds into Obama's weakness among blue collar whites, and challenges the strength of a change oriented campaign and administration if he wins the presidency.

Such a strategy is disrespectful of Blacks by suggesting that they would stand still while Obama pursues conservative interests to their detriment, in effect, exchanging the progressive substance of change for race.

I think this is a dangerous course the Obama campaign should avoid.

— Dr. Ron Walters



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Great letter, by Dr.Ron Walters. I hope the obama campaign takes notice !

Sent by Robert H. | 1:19 PM | 5-27-2008

I think your wrong .......I live in fl and here the true voice of the "people" and he can't win/

Sent by maryann | 1:59 PM | 5-27-2008

You are correct about the split in "white working class" votes. But I have noticed that many of them are already moving toward and voting for Obama. Look at the huge numbers of them voting for him in North Carolina, Indiana, and even West Virgina. While I can't quantify the numbers, with proportional distribution rules, they are giving him delegates in each of these latter states. This is happening in spite of the fact that Hillary believes they are racist, and has called out their racism as a basis to support her. She and the media would have us believe that none of them will vote for him because of racism. And that is simply not true based on his share of their votes.

The democratic party is a coalition of various interest groups. Most of the groups are there because it is in their personal best interests. In the past, these "Reagan democrats" differ from everyone else because they actually vote against themselves and focus on various wedge issues. But this year things are so bad, I don't think they have the luxury of focusing on these issues instead of food, shelter, jobs, etc. for themselves and their families.

As you indicated, expanding number of registered and participaing voters will be key. Additionally, while volunteers are critical, he is going to have to spend some money in the Black communities to maximize the Black vote. Getting out the Black vote is a massive field operation. Some consideration will have to be given to maximizing this vote.

So i agree, they need to focus their attention on sure bets. Those who want to come, will, those who won't, won't.

Sent by Paulette | 2:49 PM | 5-27-2008

I agree with Dr. Walters whole heartedly. I've been arguing with my friends about this very strategy. The voters that Hillary appealed to in West Virginia and Kentucky, the so-called white uneducated voters, are probably not going to vote for Obama no matter what. Obama should not waste valuable resources on trying to get these folks to come around. Based on some of their public comments, some of these folks are just too far gone. Obama has a lot of appeal to a cross section of Americans and he needs to build on that base. There should be an all out push to register independents, African Americans and Hispanics, and to get them to the polls in November. I believe that Obama can win with this strategy. Thanks Dr. Walters for putting this open letter out there. Coming from you, hopefully the Obama campaign will listen.

Sent by marian | 4:17 PM | 5-27-2008


I live in Florida too and did you see how Obama turned South Florida out last week with his visit down here?

Yes, Clinton got 50 percent of the vote in the Primaries but Obama got 33 percent and Edwards 17 percent. Now if Edwards was not in the race, perhaps those figures would have changed.

Also, the South Florida Sun Sentinel endorsed Obama but too bad they did it on the day of the vote when many have gone through early voting.

Sent by Moji | 8:19 PM | 5-27-2008

To me Dr Ron Walter's advice is visionary. The blue collar voters are an important part of the voters but I think that they have a hidden agenda about their choices. I say so because I live in rural Pennsylvania and even though most comments I hear do not necessarily represent every blue collar voter's view points, they resonate with a big number of the blue collar voters. To this group, the issues come secondary. I have noticed that they do not stand as individuals most of the times but go with what is happening in their area or peer pressure. They argue that; they will not vote for Obama because they say he is anti guns, that he does not wear a lapel pin, or that he is black, mixed or other petty issues. I personally think they were never going to vote for him anyway but these reasons give them more reasons to say in public. I think that they are really afraid of a black American President. They are looking at Obama as a black man trying to run the country rather than an intelligent and brilliant American trying to bring America back to its glory. To them America is better ruined under a white man than it is under anybody else different. This will happen if anyone else who is not white tries to become a president of this country. The fear is still very strong among these people people they are not or do not try to be enlightened. To me the blue collar of this country have attitudes like any other not very educated group of the world. They need to be enlightened and maybe not much effort has been done in the past to do so. This of course does not mean every blue collar voter. It is just for those who think in this way. Some uneducated people got enlightement a long time ago but there is still a large portion that has these past fears in them. Thanks to history.

Sent by Mildred | 8:39 PM | 5-27-2008

Harold for LOST in a Tsunami Democrat year. And he ran as a conservative Democrat. When you fail to caryy a Southern state you fail.

Sent by Buzz | 5:30 PM | 5-28-2008

You are right about the Black vote. You could loose millions of votes in these very large densely populated cities simply because the polling places are not near public transit, and people have a hard time getting there, or because senior citizens need physical help in getting to the polls.

We know they all will want to vote, but some throught has to be put in getting them there.

Sent by Frank | 10:48 PM | 5-28-2008

The good Dr hit the nail on the head. The focus should be on getting people registered and keeping them informed and making sure they turn out to vote by the millions. That's Black people, Hispanics/Latinos, young college students, and everybody else that want to change the direction that we've been going in. Locally, we need to make sure that voting day goes smoothly and there are no shenanigans in the usual places...hello Florida. Get your game together beforehand...c-c-c-come on...y-y-y-y-ou can do it. This Hillary crap is NOT about you. It's a party scrap and the Clintons are using you all as pawns in their silly game.

Sent by Thomas B | 3:09 AM | 5-31-2008

This is sound advice...up to a point. As a Democrat, Obama should not "write off" the white working-class vote, as this does remain an important potential component of the party's base. If, however, Walters means to suggest that Obama should not trim his program to pander to this group, yes, all to the good. If the Obama campaign runs a credible campaign that speaks to working people--of all races and ethnic groups--by assuring them he will help them get health care, protection on the job, the right to join unions, affordable housing and schools, and their children back from a needless war--then it is up to the white working class to embrace his program and come to him. That would be sound politics--and a tremendous breath of fresh air for this country!

Sent by flprof | 7:53 PM | 6-4-2008

With the 10 commandments on the back of his business card Harold Ford LOST.
Next time try the BILL OF RIGHTS!

His strategy didn't work, because what people mean by 'blue collar' is racist. Now you can couch it as 'uncomfortable' or 'not sure' yes, they're uncomfortable & unsure about voting for a Black candidate which makes then bigots. So much so that it's clouded their judgment and they've voted against their own interest. Waste of time & resources.

Besides the category of 'blue collar' peaked at 40% of the nations workers 50yrs ago and has been dwindling since. You can't build a coalition with that!

Walters is right....obama focus on extending his strength areas and don't waste time chasing 'blue collar' voters. either they're on board or not..get it or they don't.

blue collars informs a nation as we precede with a global knowledge economy, please!

Sent by Jon J | 2:53 PM | 6-6-2008