CANTON, Ohio--The last detail facing Barack Obama before Election Day is answering the first question that confronted his presidential campaign: Can he attract enough working-class white voters in communities like this to build a winning coalition?
Obama is approaching the finish poised for broad gains. He appears virtually certain to improve on Democratic nominee John Kerry's showing among Hispanics and African-Americans in 2004. And, with his smooth manner and spare eloquence, Obama also seems likely to outpace Kerry among white voters with college and graduate degrees, especially among professionals such as lawyers and professors. Polls, in fact, show Obama with a real chance of winning most college-educated whites, something no Democratic presidential nominee has done in the six-decade history of the University of Michigan's authoritative post-election survey.
But working-class whites, usually defined as white voters without a college education, have persistently perplexed Obama. During the Democratic primaries, he lost those voters to Hillary Rodham Clinton by 2-to-1, exit polls showed. And they have consistently preferred John McCain this fall.
Given his strength elsewhere, Obama can win without carrying a majority of noncollege whites. But if McCain has any hope of overcoming, or even meaningfully narrowing, Obama's lead, it's likely to come through gains among these economically pressed yet often culturally conservative and hawkish whites, especially since they are plentiful among the final contingent of undecided voters. There's a reason that Joe the Plumber, not Joe the Architect, has emerged as McCain's closing campaign symbol.
Canton typifies the communities where the struggle for the white working class is unfolding. Here, college-educated professionals are relatively few, manufacturing jobs are down, and unemployment is nearing 7 percent. In Ohio's March primary, Clinton defeated Obama in Stark County, which includes Canton, by about 3-to-2, and his deficits were even greater in declining manufacturing cities such as nearby Youngstown. Jon Seaton, who is directing McCain's Ohio campaign, predicts that places like these will reject Obama again next week. "In areas where he did very poorly in the primaries," Seaton says, "I am still not convinced he has closed the deal with those voters."
Noncollege whites are still the largest voting bloc. If they break late for McCain, they could tighten the result.
But several polls this week showed Obama competitive among Ohio working-class whites and leading solidly in the state overall. His campaign's efforts here are being reinforced by an enormous organizing drive by the AFL-CIO. The labor federation is targeting not just its members but also families it has enrolled in its Working America affiliate, which it launched in 2003 to build connections to employees in nonunion worksites. In Ohio alone, Working America has deployed 200 paid canvassers to knock on 400,000 doors for Obama so far.
One of those canvassers is Brian Bardwell, a focused 27-year-old from Akron, who spent last Monday marching double-time through a quiet south Canton neighborhood under a leaden sky that seemed a sneak preview of winter. Consulting a Palm Pilot that listed people who had signed up with the group (though none who answered the door appeared to recognize its name), Bardwell delivered a brisk pitch for Obama focused on jobs, health care, and trade. Making the case for Obama in these mostly white neighborhoods, Bardwell says, "was a little rougher" last summer. But since the stock market meltdown, he said, economic discontent is increasingly trumping voters' doubts about Obama's experience or values.
Bardwell found enough support on Monday to generally validate that assessment. Still, he encountered continuing resistance: a secretary who echoed McCain's complaints that Obama's tax plan would unfairly "spread the wealth"; another older woman who said "just a feeling" held her back from Obama.
That vague "feeling" might be code for racial resentments. But it's easy to overstate that factor. Largely because of cultural and national security issues, white Democratic presidential nominees have struggled since the 1960s with working-class white voters: Neither Al Gore nor Kerry, for instance, attracted more than 40 percent of this group against George W. Bush. To win, Obama doesn't need to run very much better among them, because minorities and college-educated whites--the "new politics" coalition where he is strong--are increasing their share of the electorate. But noncollege whites are still the largest voting bloc. If they break late for McCain, they could tighten the result.
Even if Democrats sweep next week, a win without the white working class would leave a crack in their coalition--and provide perhaps the sole opening for rebuilding a Republican Party now threatened with a historic collapse.
This article appears in the November 1, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.