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 »
$618 BILLION IN FUNDING
By a Big Margin, House Passes Defense Bill
1 days ago
THE DETAILS

The National Defense Authorization Act passed the House this morning by a 375-34 vote. The bill, which heads to the Senate next week for final consideration, would fund the military to the tune of $618.7 billion, "about $3.2 billion more than the president requested for fiscal 2017. ... The White House has issued a veto threat on both the House and Senate-passed versions of the bill, but has not yet said if it will sign the compromise bill released by the conference committee this week."

Source:
SUCCEEDS UPTON
Walden to Chair Energy and Commerce Committee
1 days ago
THE DETAILS

"Republicans have elected Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) the next chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. Walden defeated Reps. John Shimkus (R-IL) and Joe Barton (R-TX), the former committee chairman, in the race for the gavel" to succeed Michgan's Fred Upton.

Source:
BIPARTISAN SUPPORT
Senators Looking to Limit Deportations Under Trump
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

"Democratic and Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are working on legislation that would limit deportations" under President-elect Donald Trump. Leading the effort are Judiciary Committee members Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is also expected to sign on.

Source:
REQUIRES CHANGE IN LAW
Trump Taps Mattis for Defense Secretary
2 days ago
BREAKING

Donald Trump has selected retired Marine Gen. James 'Mad Dog' Mattis as his secretary of defense, according to The Washington Post. Mattis retired from active duty just four years ago, so Congress will have "to pass new legislation to bypass a federal law that states secretaries of defense must not have been on active duty in the previous seven years." The official announcement is likely to come next week.

Source:
MEASURE HEADED TO OBAMA
Senate OKs 10-Year Extension of Iran Sanctions
2 days ago
THE LATEST
×
×

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.

Login