|By JONATHAN TILOVEMay 7, 2008
|c.2008 Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON — In the weeks since the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. became a household name, the persistent question has been whether a white backlash — especially among the working class — would, as one journalist put it, “scupper” Sen. Barack Obama’s bid to become America’s first black president. The answer this week was “no.”With a big victory in North Carolina and narrow loss in Indiana, Obama now appears to be sailing serenely toward the Democratic nomination, the Wright storm clouds receding into the distance, at least for now.
Just as important, the Illinois senator weathered what were widely viewed as the toughest days of his campaign. He did at least as well with white voters Tuesday as he had two weeks earlier in Pennsylvania, before Wright returned to the public stage with a vengeance, and in Ohio in early March, when the Wright stuff was still waiting in the wings.
While New York Sen. Hillary Clinton once again beat Obama by a wide margin among blue-collar whites on Tuesday, her success with them follows a familiar fault line in Democratic primary contests. And it has little or nothing to do with race.
“A good case can be made that the Wright thing had absolutely no impact on the outcome,” said David Bositis, a senior analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.
Bositis discounts exit polls indicating that Obama’s relationship with his former pastor nudged many white voters toward Clinton. He said such questions yield notably fudgy results, and do not correspond with any tangible evidence revealed in Tuesday’s tallies.
In puzzling out Obama’s weakness with white working-class voters, Bositis said, it is useful to think of him as this year’s Gary Hart.
In 1984, the former Colorado senator — who is backing Obama — was the fresh, reformist candidate of “new ideas.” Like Obama, he did very well with more affluent, better-educated and younger voters, but did not fare as well with white working-class voters, who stuck with the establishment candidate, former Vice President Walter Mondale. This year, Hillary Clinton is the establishment candidate.
The difference for Obama is that he has combined his elite support with the overwhelming backing of blacks, who constitute more than 20 percent of the Democratic primary electorate and have given him up to 90 percent of their votes. Where Hart fell short, Obama, thanks to his black base, has eked out an advantage over Clinton, even as she claimed the lion’s share of white working-class votes.
Michael Lind, a senior fellow with the New America Foundation here, agrees that journalists and bloggers have consistently over-read nefarious racial motivations into the 2008 campaign. What is really at play in the contest, he said, “is a cultural fight that goes back 30 to 40 years.”
Lind believes white working-class voters rallied behind Clinton for the straightforward reason that they preferred her approach to lunch-bucket issues. “When they look at Obama,” he said, “they don’t see the first black president, they see the last in a line of Adlai Stevensons.”
Lind said class interests also better explain why Latino voters, most of whom are working class, were drawn to Clinton, versus the “racial” explanation that they were playing out black-brown hostilities in rejecting Obama.
And, importantly, white women voted for Clinton in large numbers out of gender pride and allegiance.
Still, the notion that the sound and fury surrounding Wright could signify so little seems to many observers counterintuitive, even absurd.
Obama is trying to make history by becoming the first black major party nominee, and, ultimately, the first black president. How could race not be a decisive factor in how many white voters view him, especially after several weeks of controversy in which he first denounced and later renounced his longtime pastor for remarks that angrily challenged American innocence?
Wright, it was widely thought, gave an easy excuse to whites hesitant to vote for a black man. After all, Obama’s longstanding association with Wright suggested he might not be the racially “transcendent” figure many had taken him for.
Matthew Lassiter, a historian at the University of Michigan, said white working-class voters have always been easy to pin with the rap of racism.
“It’s easy to blame blue-collar white voters, especially when Hillary Clinton’s campaign is making a racial argument to superdelegates that Obama can’t win because working-class white voters won’t support him,” Lassiter said.
But he added, “I don’t think it’s true.”
And the steady trajectory of the results — pre-Wright in Ohio, mid-Wright in Pennsylvania, post-Wright in North Carolina and especially Indiana (which is more similar demographically to Ohio and Pennsylvania) — suggests that Wright did not fundamentally alter the course of the race or the way white voters judged Obama.
Obama’s share of the white vote crept up — from 34 percent in Ohio to 37 percent in Pennsylvania to 40 percent in Indiana (in North Carolina it was 37 percent) — even as Wright’s sermons and speeches got round-the-clock play on YouTube, cable TV and in countless news stories and Op-Ed columns.
Similarly, Obama improved his standing among those earning less than $50,000 a year — from 42 percent in Ohio to 46 percent in Pennsylvania to 48 percent in Indiana. Likewise, he bettered his performance with those without a college degree — from 40 to 42 to 44 percent. (In North Carolina, where 35 percent of Tuesday’s voters were black, Obama won commanding victories among both the less affluent and less educated.)
These are small improvements, but mark a steady and positive movement through a period when the Obama campaign was depicted as under siege.
At the same time, Bositis notes, a Quinnipiac poll released May 1 showed Obama drawing even with Republican John McCain in fall match-ups in the swing states of Florida and Ohio, and ahead of McCain in Pennsylvania.
The question, of course, is whether Obama can improve on John Kerry’s disastrous performance with white working-class voters in 2004. Then, according to Ruy Teixeira, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, Kerry lost that demographic to George Bush by 23 points.
It would be tough, Lassiter said, if those voters were simply refusing to consider Obama, post-Wright, on account of race. But if it’s about issues of class, “Obama is going to have a much stronger argument in the fall.”