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. 
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James Oliphant
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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.

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