Can Hillary Clinton Bring White Men Back?

It matters, for her and the entire Democratic Party.

AMES, IA - JANUARY 01: People wait to shake hands with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) during her campaign stop at the Gateway Hotel Ames January 1, 2008 in Ames, Iowa. With the Iowa caucuses less than a week away the race has tightened in both Iowa and New Hampshire. 
Getty Images
James Oliphant
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
James Oliphant
March 10, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.

What We're Following See More »
Kasowitz Out, John Dowd In
2 hours ago

As the Russia investigation heats up, "the role of Marc E. Kasowitz, the president’s longtime New York lawyer, will be significantly reduced. Mr. Trump liked Mr. Kasowitz’s blunt, aggressive style, but he was not a natural fit in the delicate, politically charged criminal investigation. The veteran Washington defense lawyer John Dowd will take the lead in representing Mr. Trump for the Russia inquiry."

Trump Looking to Discredit Mueller
2 hours ago

President Trump's attorneys are "actively compiling a list of Mueller’s alleged potential conflicts of interest, which they say could serve as a way to stymie his work." They plan to argued that Mueller is going outside the scope of his investigation, in inquiring into Trump's finances. They're also playing small ball, highlighting "donations to Democrats by some of" Mueller's team, and "an allegation that Mueller and Trump National Golf Club in Northern Virginia had a dispute over membership fees when Mueller resigned as a member in 2011." Trump is said to be incensed that Mueller may see his tax returns, and has been asking about his power to pardon his family members.

Why Yes, Mueller Is Looking into Trump Businesses
7 hours ago

In addition to ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, Robert Mueller's team is also "examining a broad range of transactions involving Trump’s businesses as well as those of his associates, according to a person familiar with the probe. FBI investigators and others are looking at Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings, Trump’s involvement in a controversial SoHo development in New York with Russian associates, the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, and Trump’s sale of a Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008, the person said. The investigation also has absorbed a money-laundering probe begun by federal prosecutors in New York into Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort."

House Reauthorizes DHS
8 hours ago

"The House voted Thursday to reauthorize the Department of Homeland Security. The bipartisan measure passed easily by a vote of 386-41, with nine Republicans and 32 Democrats voting in opposition. If the bill makes it through the Senate, it would be the first-ever reauthorization of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) since it was created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks." Among the provisions it contains is a mandate that the Senate confirm the Secret Service director. It also boosts funding for the Urban Area Security Initiative by $195 million per year.

AFT’s Weingarten Likens Voucher Support to Segregation
8 hours ago

In remarks scheduled to be delivered today at the American Federation of Teachers' summer conference, President Randi Weingarten "likens U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to a climate-change denier" and "says the Trump administration's school choice plans are secretly intended to starve funding from public schools. She calls taxpayer-funded private school vouchers, tuition tax credits and the like 'only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.'" The pro-voucher Center for Education Reform said teachers should "consider inviting Weingarten’s resignation."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.