Obama pursues working-class white voters

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

The Obama campaign’s recent outreach effort aimed at non-college educated white voters may work because the demographic’s tepid support for President Barack Obama is partly offset by its low regard for the GOP presidential candidates.

First Lady Michelle Obama will be in Florida a the Ford 400 NASCAR race making the Obama campaign pitch next week and then back to Washington for the “Country Music: In Performance at the White House.” The one-day event features a line-up of famous county music singers, including Dierks Bentley, Alison Krauss and Kris Kristofferson.

Focusing on this demographic makes sense: A new CNN poll shows that Obama’s approval among whites is only 36 percent, and disapproval is 61 percent. This is a mirror image of his support among non-whites, where he has 67 approval and 32 disapproval.

But GOP leaders are not faring much better.

People without college degrees don’t trust national politicians, said Henry Olsen, the director of research at the American Enterprise Institute. GOP insiders need to appreciate the worry and insecurity of non-college voters, and to recognize their concerns about jobs, safety net programs, Chinese competition and uncontrolled immigration, he said.

Washington advocates, legislators and lobbyists “spend almost all of our lives … with high-achieving, college-educated peers, and we’re used to taking risks, to moving a lot, to managing our own careers,” he said. In contrast, working-class people are “much likely to be worried than we are … [and] tend to be risk-averse.”

Obama has pursued the white, non-college demographic steadily since 2008, chiefly through his alliance with unions.

That joint effort is demonstrated by his support for the auto unions, and his recent visits to auto factories. To some extent, these visits allow Obama to present himself as a friend of white and non-white people that lack college degrees, but they’re one of his primary outreach efforts to working-class whites.

In recent weeks, he’s also signaled his outreach to these voters by fending off progressives’ demands for easier immigration of Hispanic workers, by stepping up his rhetorical support for the military and for veterans, and by toughening his rhetoric towards China while traveling through Asia on a nine-day diplomatic trip.

Those skeptical voters may be his route to a 2012 victory because they’re also alienated from GOP politicians.

That fact was driven home on Nov. 8, when Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, saw safe Republican districts vote overwhelmingly against his reform of the union law governing the employment of 360,000 state workers, even as the voters also overwhelmingly rejected Obama’s controversial individual mandate.

Only a few days prior to the ballot, would-be GOP candidate Mitt Romney announced his support for the union law, which was defeated 61 percent to 39 percent.

Kasich and Romney lost the ballot in part because the working-class voters don’t trust ambitious politicians, and prefer to hold onto what they’ve got during difficult economic times, Olsen said.

GOP leaders “need to recognize that people are attached to these programs because they represent an island of security in a very insecure world, and presenting program changes either as a matter of necessity, … or as a matter of enhancing choices, is difficult with these voters,” Olsen said.

Immigration is a hot button issue, partly because the “people who are feeling [economic] pressure don’t feel that better-off Americans have their back,” Olsen said. Among these voters, “There’s sense that, ‘We’re Americans too, but you seem to think it’s more important to help Chinese or Mexicans that to help us.’”

China’s growth is another worry to these voters, because they’ve seen jobs and sales exported to Chinese companies. “People who are working class are worried about their [short-term] future, their ability to compete … and connecting with them means connecting with those worries while not being Pollyanish,” Olsen said.

These voters also want to be respected, not dismissed, by politicians, he added.

Rep. Paul Ryan is respected by these voters, partly because he grew up in a working-class home, and has won elections in a traditionally Democratic district, said Olsen. He understands that those voters “want [government] to remove the obstacles to let them get ahead … [and] understands they have decent lives that are worth living.”

Obama’s ratings with these voters have fallen into the 30s because of the poor economy, but also because he “doesn’t convey to people that he holds their values,” Olsen said. “His detachment — his analytical style — hurts him among less-educated voters.”

But so far, he noted, the Republican candidates have failed to connect with non-college voters.

Texas Gov. Rick “Perry [has] shown little inclination to make this case. … [Newt] Gingrich could because he comes from a very humble background, but he would need to demonstrate a degree of humility [and that] would be something he would have to make an effort to do.”

“The book is out on Romney,” Olsen said. “His background is of reserve, rather than expression,” and his personal charm “is not something that comes across in chance [media] interviews.” But, he added, Romney has shown that he can connect with people, and likely has done so when he was a leader of the Mormon Church in Massachusetts.

To connect with non-college voters, Romney “has got to take a risk. If he doesn’t take the risk to open up, he’s not going to connect with people, and he’ll be taking to their heads, not their hearts.”

But Romney doesn’t have much time to reach non-college voters, partly because Obama’s campaign is trying hard to portray him as an out-of-touch elitist who wanted the auto industry to go bankrupt, wants to damage veterans’ health-care programs and who worked as a Wall Street banker exporting Americans’ jobs overseas.

Romney, said Olsen, “has another six to eight months to make a case.”

Follow Neil on Twitter