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Democrats Dare Not "Abandon" the White Working Class

By David Paul Kuhn - December 5, 2011

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The Latino population is also growing at a far greater pace than its share of the electorate. This is another reason the “Emerging Democratic Majority” never did actually emerge. In 2008, Hispanics were about 15 percent of the population but, at most, 9 percent of the 2008 electorate. For some perspective, consider that working-class whites were 39 percent of the 2008 electorate. Even in 2035, according to projections by the Pew Hispanic Center, Latinos will account for 24 percent of the population but only 14 percent of the electorate. And it’s a fool’s errand to imagine the appeal of parties in that distant future. This helps explain why the “Democratic Majority” theory, as imagined, fails. It applies a future too distant to inform the present.

Obama’s “White Problem”: More Mondale Than Kerry

In the coming year, if only because of the immigration issue, Obama will recover significant ground with Hispanics. Whites will prove more difficult. This is why Obama might still lose even if he recovered with minorities. As from the present vantage point, Obama will struggle to match even Kerry’s performance with whites.

Obama’s gains with whites in 2008 were limited to men. Obama performed as well with white women as Al Gore did in 2000. He even won the same share of college-educated white women as Gore. Obama did surpass Kerry’s performance with these so-called “soccer moms” by a couple points, but he negated those gains by underperforming among the so-called “waitress moms.” And that was with historic winds at his back.

Critically, Obama’s gains with downscale and upscale white men occurred after the market crashed. Today, Obama’s approval rating with white men (31 percent) resembles his standing before Lehman Brothers brought Wall Street down and the American economy with it.

This means that Obama is not on track to emulate Kerry’s performance with whites. Obama is, instead, heading in the direction of Walter Mondale. And there’s no route to re-election if he even modestly out-performs Mondale with whites, partly due to the disproportionate influence of rural states in the Electoral College.

Why Dems Can’t “Abandon” Archie and Edith

Outside events could intervene on Obama’s behalf. We still don't know who will be the Republican nominee. It would be exceedingly difficult for Gingrich or Rick Perry to tamp down Democrats’ performance with upscale white women, for example. Nor do we know what political events may transpire over the coming year. Partisans traditionally retrench as Election Day nears. But the degree of that retrenchment remains unknown. The most likely scenario has long been that 2012 will be a conventionally close race.

Obama is uniquely suited to the neo-Democratic coalition. He’s black and white. He’s professorial and hails from liberal bastions of America. One of the under-considered facts of the 2008 Democratic primary is that Obama was the first Democratic candidate to win both blacks and liberal whites.

But Obama cannot afford to be merely the upscale liberal candidate, even with his uniquely strong support among blacks. His base still depends on millions of Archies and Ediths. Nearly four in 10 liberals are blue-collar whites, according to Pew Research Center data.

Obama would limit himself, at best, to a narrow victory if he turned his party away from these voters. He cannot allow a narrative to form that he “abandoned” working-class whites. These Americans already feel forgotten. There is nothing to be gained by affirming that emotion. Political oppositions thrive off of antagonists.

It’s worth also noting that Republicans already have a sharp arrow in their quiver. They’ll surely remind America of Obama’s “bitter” comments about small-town whites in 2008. And this time, Obama will not have a sudden economic crash to blanket his mistakes.

More substantially, Obama does not need to resign himself to these divisions. The president has a case to make. The working class suffered most from his choice to invest his political capital in health care reform instead of a new New Deal. Yet, in the long term, blue-collar whites will benefit from that reform -- should it survive. Thus, even on this most unpopular policy, Obama has an argument -- however modest. Blue-collar whites constitute about 40 percent of the roughly 38 million Americans without health insurance.

Even if the president ekes out a victory, the neo-Democratic strategy resigns him to a modest fate. He will lack the mandate to overcome Washington gridlock. The man who was once framed as a prophetic uniter will have divided in order to conquer. It could work. But it leaves very little margin for error. At best, humble strategies win humble goals. And at worst, well, ask Kerry or Mondale.

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David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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