Obama works on appeal
to working-class voters
ORIS STUART, 65, watched as his son Chris, 28, changed the brake pads on his car in this street in . The Stuarts said they supported , who is most popular in the poor black neighborhoods and the upper-income white neighborhoods that gave Mayor Mike Nutter, a supporter of , his greatest margins of victory.
. – Western Pennsylvania is known for sturdy things, like steel and quarterbacks, not for its poetry.
Joe Namath grew up in Beaver Falls. Joe Montana came from down the road a bit in Monongahela. Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas and George Blanda also are among the remarkable line of great quarterbacks who emerged from the nearby valleys and steel towns, a region where life is full of hard work and hard knocks.
The blue-collar workers who populate the area are quintessential Reagan Democrats, descendants of European immigrants drawn here by the promise of work in the coal mines and steel mills who allied with the Democratic Party as they formed unions. Their ties to the party loosened following the economic stagnation of the 1970s and conflict over cultural issues, such as guns and abortion.
The political judgment they make in the Democratic primary next Tuesday will be one of the next great tests in the presidential campaign.
They will be a crucial constituency in the primary. But possibly more significantly, their votes will provide a fresh reading on the appeal of Barack Obama among white working-class voters that party officials and convention superdelegates will be watching, along with results from the primary on May 6, as they consider whether to fall in behind Obama and end a potentially divisive contest for the Democratic nomination.
“If Sen. [Hillary] Clinton beats by a big margin – 15 [percentage] points or better – she will have planted fresh doubts about his chances in the general election,” said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank allied with the moderate Democratic Leadership Council.
Obama has struggled to win over these blue-collar voters in recent primaries. A question about his difficulties in rural areas provoked Obama’s recent controversial remarks at a fundraiser that economic distress has made people in small-town America “bitter” and led them to “cling to” guns or religion.
It is these voters foremost that Obama will be trying to address in the ABC presidential debate Wednesday night at 7 p.m. Central Time.
In Beaver Falls, the soaring eloquence of Obama, acclaimed author and former president, is having a tough time against the durable appeal of the Clinton dynasty and , the battle-tested political warrior.
Obama supporters were hard to find at the high school baseball diamond, where parents watching the game protected themselves against the chill with Pittsburgh Steelers blankets or hooded Beaver Falls Tigers sweatshirts. So too at L’il Joe’s tavern, where middle-aged men in light-blue Pittsburgh Penguins jerseys jumped and cheered after each goal during the hockey team’s playoff win Monday night.
Despite the political controversy over Obama’s remarks, only a few of the more than two dozen people interviewed said they had heard of them. ESPN’s “Sportscenter” is more popular among this crowd than ’s “Hardball.”
But local residents said they were drawn to Clinton because of her longer political track record, a more-plain spoken manner and memories of better times when a Clinton was last in the White House.
“When Bill was president, I was working seven days a week,” said Mike Davis, 49, co-owner of the tavern and a factory worker at a ceiling-tile manufacturer.
“The one thing I care about when they’re running for president is me working,” Davis added. “There’s going to be wars and things. But I want to be working. I don’t want to be out on the street with a tin cup. I don’t want jobs going to .”
Down the bar, sitting beside her boyfriend and a teammate from their co-ed softball team, Stephanie Mohr, 26, a scheduler for a security company, judged Obama as suspiciously “glossy.”
Likewise, at the baseball diamond, Cindy Reda, 42, a teacher’s aide who rushed toward the field to applaud her son’s hit, spoke skeptically of the fine language that has impressed so many of Obama’s admirers.
“He speaks more – I don’t want to say over your head – but he uses more clichés. She’s more straight up. For him, I’m not quite sure what he’s saying. But he says it eloquently – all the time,” said Reda, a trace of disdain evident in her final words.
Indeed, Clinton’s prosaic, nose-to-the-grindstone style can be seen as an asset. Tracey Chiappetta, a 47-year-old homemaker and part-time office manager for her husband’s business, paid Clinton a compliment that people here can relate to: “She’s a hard worker.”
Despite Obama’s humble origins in a family of modest means and early days as a community organizer in economically ravaged neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side – a biography he emphasizes on the campaign trail – his public persona shows more of the polish of an Ivy League institutions.
Obama’s fast rise in politics may provide him the advantages of a newcomer but it also suggests a charmed path through life. That contrasts with Clinton’s well-known marital and political travails.
William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former policy adviser to several Democratic presidential campaigns as well as the Clinton , said, “Obama sometimes gives the air of someone who could slide into second base without getting his uniform dirty. That elegance appeals to some people but it can also create a distance to many people.”
It is unclear how much Obama’s task may be complicated by subtle racism. In discussing the candidates, plenty of people in Beaver Falls wondered whether America is “ready” for a black president, though they often expressed the same concern about a female president.
But Obama clearly has set a priority on winning over working-class voters in .
He began his campaign in this state with a six-day bus tour through industrial towns that featured regular photo ops of visits to such blue-collar hangouts as factory floors, sports bars, hot dog stands and a bowling alley – where he totaled an infamous 37 in seven frames.
Though a Democratic candidate does not necessarily need to win the white working class bloc to win the nomination or even the general election, he or she must at least do better than 2004 nominee John Kerry, who lost the group to President Bush by 23 percentage points, said Ruy Teixeira, a visiting fellow at Brookings and author of several books on political demography.
All but two of the 12 most closely contested states in the last two presidential elections have representations of white working-class voters well above the national average. and are the exceptions. It is far from certain that performance within a Democratic primary can predict how a candidate will do in a general election campaign when the opponent is a Republican. But the primaries offer a rare opportunity to speak to voters while they are engaged in the campaign.
And in November, will be one of the biggest prizes.