Has Clinton Written Off Working-Class White Men?
The Democratic convention in Philadelphia this week was a shrewdly planned, well-choreographed, star-studded celebration of diversity, inclusion and social justice. A party now dominated by progressives also tried reaching out to moderate or defecting Republicans with decorated veterans, some tough talk on national security and passionate displays of patriotism. But for the white working-class men drawn to Donald Trump – the very voters who were for decades the foundation of the Democratic Party -- the message was clear: We've pretty much given up on you.
The convention, which started on a divisive and dramatic note with leaked emails showing the Democratic National Committee had favored the candidacy of Hillary Clinton over Sen. Bernie Sanders all along, ended up, by most accounts, a great success. Yet it also illustrated what polling shows – that the ascendant coalition in the Democratic Party of women, young voters and non-whites may no longer find common cause with blue-collar white men.
From the multi-gender bathrooms to the initial speaker lineup Monday of Ivy League graduates to comedian Sarah Silverman referencing her therapist at the podium, the show at times had all the makings of a parody about an elitist party far too focused on identity politics and out of touch with the heartland. At one point there was applause at the mention of the word abortion, a staggering turn-around from the days when Bill Clinton insisted abortion should be safe, legal and rare.
It didn't help that when asked by PBS, halfway through the convention, about Hillary Clinton's trouble attracting white working-class males, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said: "I think so many times white, non-college-educated white males have voted Republican. They voted against their own economic interest because of guns, because of gays, and because of God."
The drift away from rural America, from gun owners and pro-life voters who once found a home with Democrats in spite of some cultural differences, didn't start with Hillary Clinton's candidacy. But a fissure that began with a new coalition then-Sen. Barack Obama built to win election and then re-election, appears in a Trump vs. Clinton race to be nearing a complete separation. Guns and abortion are no longer the flash points that trade policy and immigration have become for white men who believe Democratic policies are responsible for wage stagnation and job loss.
For Clinton herself the reversal is stark. These voters once loved her husband. And in 2008 Hillary Clinton openly questioned Obama's weak support among "hard-working Americans, white Americans," insisting she had a "broader base" to win with. She pummeled Obama in the primary contests in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio and Kentucky with large rural populations by winning white men. It was in a defensive reference to these voters that Obama used a version of Pelosi’s “guns, gays, and God” riff to explain his failure to connect. It was thought at the time to be a gaffe. Now it’s apparently a strategy. Eight years later, many of these voters crossed over into the Republican primary to vote for Donald Trump. And Bernie Sanders also found a willing audience among them for his message of anti-Wall Street economic populism.
Not only did Clinton, and her fellow speakers, not focus much on the issues energizing blue-collar white men, but their anti-Trump message – that America is already great – will be interpreted as dismissive of their disaffection. It's clear that many, if not most, of these voters will agree with Trump's rejection of the Democrats’ declarations, because they aren't feeling the blind optimism expressed from the podium in Philadelphia. And four days of trumpeting about American exceptionalism, once the province of the GOP, won't make them think America is great right now.
Clinton paid lip service to these voters in her nomination speech Thursday, saying the Democratic Party is the party of working people and conceded it hadn't done a good enough job of showing them it understands what they are going through. She mentioned steelworkers, bad trade deals, and plant closures -- “some of you are frustrated, even furious,” the nominee said. But she blended talking points about Main Street vs. Wall Street with an appeal to reduce money in politics by overturning the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision -- not exactly top of mind to a coal miner in Kentucky watching his industry evaporate.
Trump’s new post-convention leads among non-college whites range from 23 to 39 percentage points, and some polls show Clinton's negative ratings among this group at higher than 70 percent, worse than Trump's negative ratings with women. Yet Clinton is not giving up on these voters. Not only will she campaign in coming days in Ohio and Pennsylvania, where unions are scrambling to hold back Trump voters, but she plans to use Catholic white male surrogates like Vice President Joe Biden and vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine to reach out to them. Bill Clinton plans to do the same, heading into white rural counties across America in September, bracing against fierce headwinds over NAFTA to try to persuade a former constituency to return to the fold.
Hillary Clinton may win in November, but it’s safe to say she will lose white men badly. Just as Trump will have to speak to the women and non-whites he has alienated throughout his campaign should he become president, Clinton will have to lead a group of Americans who feel completely divorced from her party. Their towns and cities are hurting, their jobs are disappearing, they will never have the life their parents had and they don't think their kids can either.
They aren't going anywhere.