NPR logo Ron Walters: An Open Letter to Barack Obama

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

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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.

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— Dr. Ron Walters

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