Can Obama Woo Clinton's Blue-Collar Base?

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Illinois Sen. Barack Obama poses with a family in Pennsylvania.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama poses for a photograph with the Brunhuber family at Altoona's Original Texas Hot Dogs in Pennsylvania on March 29. Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
White, working-class voters have given New York Sen. Hillary Clinton a boost.

Supporters listen as New York Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign rally at Greater Johnstown Senior High School in Pennsylvania on April 20. White, working-class voters gave her the boost she needed to win the state's primary. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama browls in Pennsylvania.

Obama has done activities such as bowling on the campaign trail to try to ramp up his support among white, working-class voters. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images

As Sen. Barack Obama's long struggle against Sen. Hillary Clinton grinds to a conclusion, the apparent nominee now needs the strong support of Clinton voters.

But in exit polls, many of those voters have said that if Clinton is not the nominee, they plan to vote for Republican Sen. John McCain. The data have shown this to be particularly true among white working-class voters, who gave Clinton the boost she needed in recent primary states such as Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky.

Bill Galston, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, said that voters who have had hard times don't buy Obama's rhetoric of change.

"They receive it as abstract rather than concrete, as visionary rather than realistic and as naïve rather than shrewd," he said.

Glen Bolger, a consultant for Republican Senate candidates, points out that those white, working-class voters are McCain's best shot at wooing Democrats because they have already rejected Obama once.

"The biggest challenge that the Democrats face with those voters is the sense that the Democratic Party leadership — [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi, Obama, [2004 Democratic presidential nominee John] Kerry — is elitist and looks down on Middle America as nothing but a bunch of rednecks who don't have the right kind of culture," Bolger said.

Elitism is a problem for Obama, said Andrew Kohut, who directs the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Some of these voters, especially Catholics and senior citizens, feel uncomfortable with Obama, he said.

"It's offset by his strength among younger voters, among independents, among well-educated people," he said. "The story of the Democratic race is that while he's had this problem with this segment of the electorate, this group of voters, his strength in the other group has carried the day for him."

Voting Group Math

Obama's success with affluent voters and young people may not be enough in the fall, says Ruy Teixeira, a political scientist and demographer.

"No matter how well you're doing among those emerging constituencies, if you get crushed among a demographic that's as big as the white working class — which I estimate is a little under half the electorate – if you get clobbered like John Kerry did in 2004 by 23 points, there's no way you can win the election among other groups," he said.

But, if Obama's not quite clobbered, and if he loses white working-class voters by 10 points or fewer, he can still win the election, according to Teixeira's math. And Obama is doing that well now in most polls. In fact, polls show he's gaining ground with most voter groups, according to Kohut.

"I don't think there's any reason for Obama to give up on any of the groups he has not done well on," Kohut said, "because in the general election, he's going against McCain in an environment where the economy is the dominant issue. And these same voters are the most concerned about economic issues."

Race, Economy and Comfort

Race will be a factor with white working-class voters, Kohut said, but the economy and gas prices will also be important.

In several conversations, the word "comfort" also came up. Voters need to feel comfortable with Obama and his goals for the country. Clinton is familiar; so is McCain. Obama is new — a simple fact that may account for some of his problems in attracting parts of the electorate, according to political scientist Bill Galston.

"There was this familiar political solar system, and then this comet streaks across the sky," Galston said about Obama. "No astronomer had predicted it. Where did he come from? Who is this?"

He added, "He's done a much better job than I would have believed possible a year-and-a-half ago. But obviously, there are substantial portions of the electorate with whom he has not sealed the deal."

Galston said younger voters find it easier to support a new candidate and that sealing the deal for the rest of electorate will take time.

The question is whether it will take more time than Obama has between now and November.

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