Are White Men the Soccer Moms of 2008?

Sen. Barack Obama

hide captionSen. Barack Obama tours a Johnstown, Penn. factory before that state's democratic primary.

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They're generally part of the working class, skewing right of center. With an African-American and a woman as top democratic contenders, Politico.com's David Paul Kuhn says white male voters are as critical as they've ever been — but now they're even more elusive.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Hey, thanks, Mark.

MIKE PESCA, host:

So you're allowed to come into the Wikipedia encyclopedia and just start crossing out stuff you don't like?

MARK GARRISON: Well, you have to do it fast because they're going to put the book out...

PESCA: No, I mean after it's on the shelf. Just, you know, little carrots, little...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARRISON: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

PESCA: I think that guy was a jerk.

MARTIN: Thank you, Mark. So, the Hispanic vote, the youth vote, the black vote, the female vote, during this never-ending primary cycle, just about every demographic you can think of has been hailed as the key to winning the Democratic presidential nomination.

But according to some election watchers, the bloc the Dems should be wooing is the one they've had a tough relationship with over the years, white men. This group is generally part of the working class, skewing just right of center, and historically has been the power at the polls that can turn a candidate into a president.

With an African-American and a woman as the top Democratic contenders, have white men become the soccer moms of 2008? Joining us now is David Paul Kuhn. He's senior political reporter for politico.com and author of the book, "The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma." Hey, David. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. DAVID PAUL KUHN (Political Reporter, Politico.com): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So a little bit of history, first. The premise of your book talks about this kind of reverse gender gap among Democrats where a high number of white men, who make up about 36 percent of the electorate, refuse to even, this is according to you, consider voting Democratic. What started this whole white male flight from the party?

Mr. KUHN: Well, it obviously reaches back to the early '50s. It becomes potent in the late '60s, early '70s, and a permanent fixture in American politics in 1980 with Ronald Reagan's presidency. I mean, 80 percent of my book is an argument of history. In other words, it wasn't exactly, you said reverse gender gap, and that's, of course, because we think of the gender gap in terms of Republicans' problem with women.

But if you actually look at what happened in 1980, the Republicans, in other words, didn't lose women. They simply won a lot of men. So the Democratic number with men, when weighed out, while they effectively held their number with women and that made women much more likely to vote Democratic.

But in effect, what was going on was that men were leaving the Democratic party, moving to the Republican fold, and basically, the Democrats weren't winning enough women to make up for that.

And that, in the most basic sense, is what explains why Democrats have lost five of the last seven presidential elections because they simply lost more men than they won women. In fact, they never won a majority of white women. Basically, they haven't even accomplished that since 1964.

MARTIN: I guess, David, what were the issues, though, that were driving that move. I mean, why, when you attract women, why do you lose men? Why is it a zero-sum game?

Mr. KUHN: Yeah, I mean, I guess the point I wanted to first say is, I guess is, I wanted to emphasize why they lost these men. In other words, they did lose men. They didn't necessarily attract women. But yes, later, they did end up winning back more white women, to some extent, and some of the minority women, to a larger extent.

Why did this happen? OK. Well, obviously, 1950s we have the onset of (unintelligible) coming to in fix it up. Instead, I want to keep this quite simple. Basically, national security. It was civil rights. It was the entire issue regarding desegregation. But that was really an issue that changed the vote in the Deep South.

In other words, you look at the (unintelligible) South, states like Tennessee, it wasn't as simple as civil rights. And certainly, by the time we get to the '80s, and, you know, what happened in the late '90s, it's an entire storm of issues that accomplished this feat for the Republican Party. And that is, again, national security. Certainly, the Southern foot to some extent, mainly in the Deep South.

But also issues of culture, issues of a group of people who no longer felt the Democratic Party represented their interests. In other words, the Democratic Party stood up for everybody who was not white and male, whether that was women or minorities, and to some extent, the belief of the Democratic Party actually represented a liberal culture that, in fact, stereotyped these men as, really, the bigoted Archie Bunker from "All in the Family."

And in doing that, you do have, by the mid-1990s, a feeling that, among many of these men, who are with middle class and working classes, what do I have to gain by the Democratic Party? But also, does the Democratic Party even have my interests, you know, in mind? In fact, do they actually condescend me?

Do they actually disdain me? Is there a cultural antagonism there? And certainly, if, by 2004, when I toured the country, you know, talking to so many Americans, men, women, black, brown, white, but especially what I noticed with these white men, you know, most of those guys I grew up with, so that's a good portion of my life.

MARTIN: We should point out, you are one, yeah.

Mr. KUHN: Yeah, I'm a white male, exactly. You know, what you realize is that, but that's the point, of course, is that a lot of these men only feel comfortable actually talking to, like, really speaking vocally among other white guys because, the truth is, they're so used to the cultural recrimination of the slightest verbal gaffe or the slightest, you know, sort of - I don't want to use the word "politically incorrect "because that's such a loaded phrase today.

But they do feel that anything they say that is not on the script of what is appropriate will be instantly judged. And therefore, there is a difference in, sort of, what is said publically and what is said privately. That said, obviously, talk radio becomes a format for people to rant and rave.

PESCA: Right, but they just retreat in terms of those comments, and maybe we don't have the debate on their issues because they just think that they're going to get jumped all over if they say, well, why do we have to have affirmative action or whatever it is?

Mr. KUHN: Like with Don Imus, what Imus said was awful and inappropriate. But the reaction, also, portrays a sensitivity to a white guy using language that's quite common, you know, in the music I listen to and even, you know, in the social circles that I've always grown up with.

I mean, you know, among my black friends or my white friends, I mean, it's hard to say that, you know, what is said publically is more dangerous than what is said privately, but they do retreat, and they also feel that it's also male component here, black or white, which is that men often feel - you know are essentially trained and taught not to talk about themselves, not to express their feelings and not to express their, at times, their rage.

And so I really think we're in (unintelligible) this entire lexicon of cliches in our culture for men who experience any concerns or any troubles, to really keep it to themselves and really push on. Now, what happens, though, of course, is that minority men correctly understand that there's a saddle-force to make their lives a little harder.

There's still racism, there's still this sort of different cultural sensitivities, you know, you name it. But really, white guys are told that anything that happens to them is really not only fair, but in fact, their fault.

PESCA: Yes, the message is both the acceptable and the inevitable consequence, and I think they probably also respond better to the self-sufficiency-message branding of the Republican Party than that of what the Democratic Party branding is, we'll help the downtrodden.

MARTIN: David, I want to get to this election, I want to ask you a couple of questions about how things have perhaps changed for the white male voter, has he become more significant, more crucial as a result of some of these primaries? Do you mind sticking with us after the break for just a couple of minutes?

Mr. KUHN: Yes, it would be my pleasure.

MARTIN: Thank you. We are talking with David Paul Kuhn. He's a senior political reporter for politico.com and the author of "The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma." We're going to finish our conversation with him coming up after the break. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Hey, welcome back to the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. You can listen to us online all the time at npr.org/bryantpark. We're continuing our conversation with David Paul Kuhn, he's a political reporter for politico.com. He also wrote a book called "The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma."

And we've been talking with David a little bit about what he describes as the "neglected white male voter," their move away from the Democratic Party, some of the issues behind that, some of the reasons. I want to talk specifically about this election, 2008. White male voters have been defined by you and others as the soccer moms, in some ways, of this election as a critical voting bloc.

And we saw out of Pennsylvania now, Hillary Clinton, who had had some earlier problems with that demographic, picking up some momentum, seemingly. She got 56 percent of the white male vote. That's significant. Meanwhile Obama, lots of headlines today in the paper saying Obama's got a problem with race.

He's not doing enough to bridge that divide. What does he need to do to become more appealing to that demographic? Nora Ephron has written recently that it's just about racism. Is it that simplistic or is there something else he's not doing to make himself attractive to that demographic?

Mr. KUHN: Yeah, I mean, it's not that simplistic. The problem is that we see the videos of Reverend Jeremiah Wright or we see his comments that were certainly impolitic, if not condescending, down in San Francisco. And we think that we talk about that in context of the Democratic primary, but not only through polling.

But we know was the man voting in a Democratic primary, the white guys, these are not the same white men who left the Democratic Party. These are the white men who stayed. They have different concerns. Many of them live in New York City, for example, so that's an important distinction.

And so what happens in the Democratic primary is these guys essentially charged the momentum of the election. So Hillary Clinton had them in the beginning. She lost them as Obama surged, as Obama won Virginia and Wisconsin, and she regained that. And so as white women go all for Hillary and as Hispanics go all for Hillary, effectively, as African-Americans go all for Barack, they really become the only, by definition, swing vote.

Hillary's won them 12 times, and Obama's won them 10 times. But I want to get to another point. We joked - earlier we joked about do they feel downtrodden or - it's not that these guys, they've never - they're not trying to have victim status, and they don't feel downtrodden. Except by really, by the mid-'90s when we started talking about the angry white male, it's that they really came to a point culturally where they didn't want to be victims.

But they were sick of being blamed for the victimization of everybody else. But that doesn't mean there aren't real issues, and in 2008, as they really are, the key swing bloc, that's because they're the largest portion of independent voters, more than even white women. But really they've always been the key swing block for the last quarter century.

In some sense because we have an African-American who could be president and because we have a woman who could be president, it's almost culturally freed up the media, the punditocracy to talk about white guys, because, hey, they're not totally ruling in our two-party system.

MARTIN: But they may not be ruling the party system, but you admit that they still have the pivotal vote. So while they may be neglected, it's because they hold the power, and people don't think they have to pay attention to them.

Mr. KUHN: Well, two things. The neglected idea is that they simply - the Democratic Party, for many reasons, does not consider looking at the very voters that left their party, the very voters that took the majority with them. And that was middle-class and working-class white men. In the coming election, it's not that - there are many reasons - there's a whole separate discussion on why whether the media or political analysts didn't really pay attention.

So it was sort of a six-foot rabbit right in front of them as a (unintelligible) quoted a Democratic strategist told me on the phone even a few weeks ago who is out of Virginia, a rural Democratic strategist. You know, nothing changes in numbers, and so we can argue over why these men left.

And you know, but the fact is that they are the critical demographic, the demographic needed, they actually want to win back the majority. They won the majority in '76, and I think that fact is the overriding fact as they look toward. Go ahead.

PESCA: Yeah. This is what I wanted to ask you. It is true factually that all these groups are white men. But is it more accurate to speak of them as, they're gun lovers, or they're value voters, or they're veterans, or they're business owners?

They happen to be grouped in this rubric, but they're really a whole bunch of different interests and in those interests is the commonality that they're white men. It's not they're whiteness or maleness.

Mr. KUHN: Yeah, I mean, the problem is that we talk any swing voters, we talk about Hispanics or white women or white men, it's always a bit absurd. There's obviously specific subgroups in any swing bloc. But certainly if we can talk about Hispanics as a swing vote or white women or suburban women, we can talk about white men.

Now when you look at the white men who left the Democratic Party, a quarter of the working class in the last, you know, half century, 30 percent of the middle class, when you look at these men, there actually are overriding, like-minded worldviews, whether it's issues or whether it is cultural. They vote far more on character, for example, than women or minorities.

So the character politics that have always been a part of a presidential politics because it's the most personal votes does matter with these men, and it will affect how they vote. And so there are distinctions and some care more about their right to bear arms, some care more about the fact that the Democrats put forth NAFTA.

MARTIN: Lots of issues, there are obviously a much more complicated voting bloc than we can articulate in our limited time. David, hey, we really appreciate you helping us facilitate this conversation. David Paul Kuhn, senior political reporter for Politico and author of "The Neglected Voter." Thanks so much, David, we appreciate it.

Mr. KUHN: Thanks for having me.

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