It's hard to know which was worse about Barack Obama's dismissal of small-town voters as narrow-minded, churchgoing gun nuts: the original arrogance of his remarks or his repeated attempts to explain them. If there was any consolation to a campaign facing its most serious test yet, it was that attempts by both Hillary Clinton and John McCain to make hay at his expense did not go over very well either--which just serves as one more reminder of the challenge politicians face when they talk to and about voters who have lost the most in the economic earthquakes of the past 25 years.
Maybe the cringe factor would have been less had Obama not been speaking in San Francisco, a regional headquarters for secular condescension, or at a private fund raiser, where the rich and powerful gather for shrimp and special access; or if Obama, a comfortably devout Christian, had not said that "bitter" small-town voters "cling" to their faith, along with their guns and their "antipathy to people who aren't like them." By any measure, it was a graceless move to characterize an entire demographic group--and vital voting bloc--as irrational and bigoted. And it came from a candidate who should know better than any the sting of being lumped into a stereotype and dismissed.
The details of Obama's San Francisco misadventure may eventually fade away, but the anxieties it unearthed among Democrats won't. Obama had walked right into the son-of-Dukakis story line that the Clinton campaign had been working so hard to plant in the nightmares of Democratic Convention superdelegates, who are likely to determine the outcome of a nominating fight that is turning out to be far longer--and potentially more damaging to the winner--than anyone had expected.
The controversy also tapped worries about whether Obama--with his liberal voting record, lack of experience and unconventional brand of politics--can weather a Republican onslaught in the fall. Obama's advisers concede that his insurgent campaign against Clinton was going so smoothly, it was a little hard to know how the candidate would handle a crisis of his own making--as opposed to finding the right way to distance himself from the incendiary remarks of others. Obama's own words were potentially more damaging than the controversial comments of his minister Jeremiah Wright or even his wife Michelle's declaration in February that "for the first time in my adult lifetime I am really proud of my country."
The early round of polls taken after Obama made his comments showed virtually no movement in the Pennsylvania race: Obama continued to trail Clinton but remained within striking distance. And some of the working-class Democrats in that state said they understood what Obama was trying to say, even if the professional political class didn't. "I think them remarks is the absolute truth," said Bill Williams, 60, a bearded disabled veteran from Waynesburg who attended an Obama town-hall meeting near Pittsburgh. "We like our faith and our guns. I went to church when things were bad, and I went out and I hunted for my family food, where I didn't know whether to put the gun in my mouth or to shoot an animal. So, yeah, he was right on the money. And was I bitter, and am I bitter? Hell, yes, I am."
But the repercussions in the few remaining Democratic primary races are not really the issue. What raises the stakes is the crucial role that white working-class voters play in just about every conceivable Democratic scenario for winning in the fall. It is no accident that McCain is also exploiting Obama's comments to go after swing voters and rev up his own embittered base. Small-town Americans "are the people that have fundamental cultural, spiritual and other values that in my view have very little to do with their economic condition," McCain said in a speech at the Associated Press annual meeting in Washington. And in case that didn't hit the spot, McCain offered a side order of butter to those voters, whom he called "the foundation of our strength and the primary authors of its essential goodness."
So who really speaks for the working class? There are many ways to define this slice of the population, but the one that makes the most sense in political terms is to think of it broadly as those white Americans who lack a college degree. Once the Democratic stalwarts whose sense of economic self-interest sustained Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal coalition, working-class whites were the patriotic, the churchgoers--and, yes, many of them were hunters--who began to drift from the Democratic Party in the turbulent 1960s and later became the margin of victory for Ronald Reagan. They have never fully returned to the Democratic fold and as a result have become less and less of a factor in its primary politics. Among those who remain with the Democrats, the core of this group tends to be older and female, the demographic most attuned to the 60-year-old Clinton. And of course, race is a factor too, though it is one that is impossible to measure. Governor Ed Rendell, Clinton's highest-profile supporter in Pennsylvania, suggested in February that some whites in his state "are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate."
Working-class whites are a shrinking segment of the overall U.S. population. In 1940 they accounted for 86% of adults 25 and older; by 2007, that percentage was only 48. But they tend to be concentrated in many of the states that have been most competitive in recent presidential elections and are likely to be again this fall: states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
In a new study for the Brookings Institution, visiting fellow Ruy Teixeira and Emory University political-science professor Alan Abramowitz argue that the test for Democrats is not whether they can win working-class whites outright but whether they can hold their losses among these voters to 10 percentage points or less. In 2000 Al Gore lost them to George W. Bush by 17 percentage points; four years later, John Kerry lost them by 23 points. By contrast, Democratic candidates in the 2006 midterm elections ran 10 percentage points behind Republicans among working-class whites--and managed to win back the House and the Senate as well as six governorships and nine state legislatures. The issues that mattered in that election--disapproval of President Bush, opposition to the Iraq war and economic insecurity--remain at the top of their concerns today and could make white working-class voters more open to the idea of voting for a Democrat.