Obama, Romney challenged in getting blue-collar voters

The battle for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination looks as if it’s almost over, but the quest for the support of white blue-collar voters in November is just beginning. 

Some Republican strategists fear that Mitt Romney could be poorly positioned to win the strong backing that recent GOP presidential candidates have received from this group. His repeated and awkward references to his vast wealth, together with a more generally maladroit personal style, have exacerbated doubts that were never far from the surface. 

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At the same time, however, President Obama had significant difficulties winning over working-class white voters during his own epic 2008 primary contest with Hillary Clinton. During that campaign, his unguarded reference to small-town voters who “cling to guns or religion” became emblematic of what critics viewed as a patronizing attitude toward blue-collar people. 

On Election Day 2008, Obama’s near-landslide win over John McCain came despite losing the votes of whites without a college education by 18 percentage points.

Put it all together, and it looks as if the election will be fought between two candidates who are particularly ill-suited to appeal to a large segment of the electorate. In 2008, whites without a college education cast 39 percent of the total votes in the presidential election.

“I don’t know where they’ll go,” Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine who has written extensively about class-based issues, said of white working-class voters. “If the election comes down to Obama and Romney, I don’t see them having a real affinity with either candidate. How many are going to say, ‘I don’t like either one; I am going to stay home.’?”

Criticism of the candidates’ ability to connect with blue-collar voters to some extent crosses party lines. Ruy Teixeira, co-author of the acclaimed 2002 book “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” and a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, said of Obama:

“His persona is not ideal for connecting with white working-class voters. There may be some racial animus there [from white voters], but he also doesn’t seem like their type of guy — he is cerebral and a bit aloof.”

Republican strategist Keith Appell admits that he has worries about Romney’s capacity to appeal to voters in the Rust Belt states who have been pivotal in recent presidential elections.

“I do have concerns about states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and other key battleground states like Missouri and Minnesota,” Appell said. “Those voters are gettable for Republicans if you can connect with them. But Rick Santorum connects better with some of those people.”

Exit polls bear this out. In Ohio, for example, Santorum beat Romney by 5 percentage points among voters without a college degree, even as he lost the primary overall. He also defeated Romney by 11 points among voters with an income of between $50,000 and $100,000.

Democratic strategist Bob Shrum said such results mean that Romney’s advisers are “really going to have to do an Etch A Sketch on him to make him appealing to blue-collar voters.”

Shrum asserted that the problem was not Romney’s wealth — he noted that Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy both came from affluent backgrounds — but rather a sense among less-well-off Americans that Romney “doesn’t get them, he doesn’t understand them, he doesn’t care about them.”

While Shrum has political reasons to make those arguments, there is little dispute that Romney has made several significant gaffes. His casual admission that his wife, Ann, drives “a couple of Cadillacs” and his offer to bet Texas Gov. Rick Perry $10,000 during a debate have underscored his atypical wealth. 

Just this week, Democrats seized on the news that Romney’s major renovations for a mansion he owns in La Jolla, Calif., would include a four-car garage with its own elevator. 

But Appell, the Republican strategist, brought up Obama’s “cling” comments by way of comparison:

“There are an awful lot of blue-collar people who believe in the Second Amendment and are people of faith,” he said. “And it doesn’t make them less of a person than Barack Obama is. He lectures instead of leads.”

If blue-collar whites are defined as those without a college education, there is almost no doubt that the Republican candidate, whomever that should be, will win a plurality of their votes. The complicating factor is whether that person can win enough of their support to offset the traditional Democratic advantage among other groups.

“There is the question about Romney not connecting with people at an emotional level. What’s going to happen, then, to independent blue-collar voters?” asked Henry Olsen of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “The question is not whether he will win white blue-collar voters overall. The question is whether he will win them by a big enough margin.”

Teixeira agreed. For Romney, “the problem is that the bar is quite high. He probably needs to carry those voters by 25 percentage points. And, so far, he is not anywhere close.”

Teixeira added that this disparity does not mean Romney cannot win the election. A bad economy could almost guarantee him victory. But when it comes to blue-collar voters, he added, Obama might be fortunate in terms of the identity of his most likely opponent.

“Having Romney around, doing and saying the things he has done, is a tonic for Obama,” Teixeira said. “It doesn’t look like he will be running against a candidate with a very strong appeal to this demographic group. And that increases the chances that he will be able to hit his more modest targets among those voters.”