In the final weeks of her last presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton seemed to find a different voice. As Barack Obama was busy assembling what ultimately became known as the "Obama coalition," Clinton was reaching out to those who stayed off the bandwagon: middle-class and working-class whites, many of whom lived in small towns in forgotten corners of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
After thumping Obama in the West Virginia primary in May 2008, Clinton said she was staying in the race "for the nurse on her second shift, for the worker on the line, for the waitress on her feet, for the small-business owner, the farmer, the teacher, the coal miner, the trucker, the soldier, the veteran."
Clinton didn't say "white people," but she didn't need to. The message was clear. And she was even more explicit in an interview with USA Today that month, saying, "Obama's support among working, hardworking Americans, white Americans, is weakening."
At the time, some Democrats accused her of splitting the party along racial and ethnic lines in a naked play for disaffected whites who were uncomfortable with Obama. But it's expressly this group of voters the president has had the most trouble keeping loyal to the party, polls show. The New York Times/CBS News poll last month was the latest evidence of what has been a consistent pattern for Obama: His support among independent white men has been dropping steadily. And this is after the president lost white voters by a margin unmatched in history by a winning candidate.
Democratic concern about losing that segment of the electorate has largely been papered over by a prevailing belief that key members of that Obama coalition will continue to buttress the party: Hispanics, African-Americans, college-educated women, and young people. But a study by the centrist think tank Third Way argues that the party should be worried because demographics aren't the destiny Democrats hope they will be.
"There's too much overconfidence right now," says Michelle Diggles, the author of the study, which asserts that Hispanic and young voters, in particular, are likely candidates to defect to the GOP in 2016 if the right candidate emerges. Even with the demographic shifts underway nationwide, she says, if the 2004 election had played out in 2012, George W. Bush still would have beaten John Kerry. (The reason: Bush scored 44 percent of the Latino vote.)
That means that crafting a message to pull more white working-class voters back into the Democratic orbit may become more essential for Clinton, if she runs, than it ever was for Obama. And, certainly, Clinton, as she showed in West Virginia and elsewhere, may have an ability to reach those voters in a way Obama never could.
Yes, skin color plays a part, but it's not the only reason. "In Ohio, race has always impacted the electorate," says Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. "It impacts the president's polling numbers. All of us know that; too few of us mention it."
In 2008, Clinton defeated Obama in Ohio and Pennsylvania, two bastions of working-class whites. (Although Obama won both states in the general election.) And a recent Quinnipiac University poll showed her with a commanding advantage in the state against any other candidate from either party. Indeed, Clinton polls better in an "old" industrial swing state such as Ohio than in a "new" one such as Colorado.
Clinton's appeal to those white voters, Redfern says, would allow the party to get a better foothold in the Midwest—and perhaps offset a loss of Hispanic or young voters in other states. Democrats, he says, "know they cannot allow huge swaths of the electorate to slip away and make up for that somewhere else."
On a policy level, the emergence of income inequality and middle-class struggle as central issues—less a factor in 2008—could benefit Clinton, as well, strategists say. She "could and should get the backing of white working-class people," says Fiona Conroy, who managed Sen. Joe Manchin's successful reelection campaign in West Virginia. "Democrats need to draw strong contrasts with Republicans when talking to these voters, especially on pocketbook issues."
That may not be enough. Andrew Levison, author of the book The White Working Class Today, argues Clinton would need to go even further to court the lost white voters by ditching the time-honored, union-oriented rhetoric that suggests government can solve the nation's ills—and instead adopt a more modern mind-set, espoused by liberals such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, that government has been co-opted by big business, that "the game is rigged."
But could Clinton, a former senator and secretary of State, deliver such an outsider message as the ultimate insider? And could a woman who jets about the world and delivers speeches at $200,000 a pop still connect with cashiers at Walmart? "Yes, it's tougher for her," Levison concedes.
One former Clinton staffer, who asked to remain unidentified, said she could: "She cut her political teeth in Arkansas. She's able to speak to those people." Yet, the ex-staffer cautioned, the knock on Clinton then and if she runs again would be whether she truly means it, that "she'll tell you what you want to hear."
Indeed, Clinton won over the white-male vote by positioning herself as the anti-Obama. Without a similar rival next time, will she still bother with train depots in Grafton, W.Va., and high schools in Steubenville, Ohio? That's one of the problems with being a presumptive nominee: The map, and the people who live deep within it, become less and less important.
This article appears in the March 8, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Winning White Men.