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Why Obama Will Win Blue Collar Whites in November

By Robert Robb

Hillary Clinton trudges on. But the Democratic primary is over: Barack Obama will be the nominee.

Clinton's hope was to convince super delegates that Obama had too large of a problem with blue-collar White Democrats to win in November. And to get past Obama in at least the aggregate popular vote to provide an excuse for super delegates to overlook Obama's inevitable lead in pledged delegates.

This was always going to be a tough sell. Democratic fortunes depend heavily on Black turnout, which is volatile. Even if it meant risking the presidency, Democratic officialdom couldn't be perceived as, in essence, stealing the nomination from Obama.

Any hope of a pretext for the super delegates to swing to Clinton died last Tuesday. To keep it alive, Clinton needed to win big in Indiana and run Obama close in North Carolina. Instead, the obverse happened.

According to the tally of RealClearPolitics.com, Obama has a lead in votes cast in all primaries and caucuses of 821,000, excluding Florida and Michigan. Including Florida, which had the names of all the candidates on the ballot even if none of them campaigned there, Obama has a 416,000 vote lead. Including Michigan, where Clinton's name was on the ballot but not Obama's, the lead shrinks to 197,000.

If Clinton runs very strong in the remaining primaries, she might catch Obama in the popular vote, if Michigan results are included. But no one is going to buy that as a fair measurement.

So, however the end plays out, Obama will be the nominee. And both Democrats and Republicans now regard him as damaged goods, due primarily to his continuing problems attracting blue-collar White votes, which was manifest in North Carolina and Indiana despite the generally favorable outcome for him in those contests.

Obama's problem has been crystallized, and perhaps catalyzed, by two developments. Blue-collar Whites have trouble understanding and accepting his long association with Jeremiah Wright of troubling rant fame. And Obama's statement that blue-collar Whites "cling" to guns and God, and manifest prejudice, because of economic insecurity struck them as condescending and offensive.

The conventional wisdom is that this gives John McCain, the straight-talking former fighter-jet pilot, a chance to make inroads.

I'm skeptical. Here's why.

McCain undoubtedly would be a more comfortable cultural fit for many blue-collar White Democrats. However, this is an election in which economic issues will loom large. And, while it is not the reason that they embrace guns and God, blue-collar Whites are feeling a great degree of economic insecurity these days.

The economy, along with the Iraq war, will be the major backdrops of this election. And there will be three major economic issues on which Obama and McCain will fight: taxes, health care and trade. On all three, blue-collar Whites are much more likely to side with Obama than McCain.

On taxes, McCain proposes extending the Bush tax cuts and reducing the corporate tax rate to be more internationally competitive.

Obama proposes making the tax code even more redistributionist, eliminating the Bush tax cuts for those making over $200,000 while adopting additional tax credits for middle-class and lower-income families.

Obama's tax policies would dramatically reduce investment capital at a time when it is particularly economic important. And, ordinarily, the politics of envy haven't fared very well.

However, in the midst of heightened economic insecurity, blue-collar voters are likely to go to whoever promises them the most. And right now, that's Obama.

Health care has become a component of economic insecurity, since most people get it from their employer. McCain has some good proposals to liberate people from dependence on employers for health insurance. But he doesn't provide a governmental guarantee of access and affordability, as Obama does.

On trade, it's straightforward: McCain is an ardent free-trader; Obama is running as a protectionist. And blue-collar workers believe, mistakenly, that free trade is the primary source of their economic insecurity.

In an election in which the sense of economic insecurity wasn't so inflamed and extensive, blue-collar White Democrats might very well vote their greater cultural affinity with McCain. But Obama speaks more directly to their economic concerns, if not to their true longer-term economic interests.

Elections get down to: Compared to whom? Just because Obama couldn't win blue-collar Whites against Clinton doesn't mean he won't win them against McCain.

Robert Robb is a columnist for the Arizona Republic and a RealClearPolitics contributor. Reach him at robert.robb@arizonarepublic.com. Read more of his work at robertrobb.com.

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