Democrats' Working-class Blues

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THE PLANK APRIL 9, 2008

Democrats' Working-class Blues

I've believed for a long time, and continue to believe, that Barack Obama would be a stronger general election candidate than Hillary Clinton. But I have to admit that his problems with the white working class are a more severe liability than I originally thought.

When the class gap first appeared more than a year ago, I dismissed it as a pure high information/low information voter split: non-college-educated voters tend to consume less campaign news, and were therefore uncomfortable backing a less-familiar figure in Obama. But the education gap is not going away.

Gallup finds that, over the last three weeks, Obama's lead over Clinton among white college-educated Democrats (and Democratic leaners) has risen from 7 points to 12 points. Among those with post-graduate degrees, it's exploded, from an 8 point lead to a 29 point lead. But among white voters with a high school degree or less, his deficit has barely budged, from 33 points to 30 points. As it stands, the educational chasm is stark:

Can Obama's heavy campaigning make a difference? Pennsylvania is a good test case -- Obama has campaigned heavily there and bombarded the state with ads -- but so far the results are meager. Mark "Mystery Pollster" Blumenthal pulls out the polling by education level. Obama has risen among white voters, but almost all the rise has occured among the college-educated. Since March 16, Obama has improved his standing vis a vis Clinton among white Pennsylvanians with collee degrees by 19 points. Among whites without college degrees, he's improved by just six points.

Meanwhile, Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz have written an interesting paper on the history and future of the Democratic party and the white working class. The main finding is that the white working class is slowly shrinking as a proportion of the electorate, but for the foreseeable future will remain large enough that the Democrats can't afford to get crushed among this group. It's a good read, but it won't make Democrats feel any better about their chances in November. I think Hillary Clinton would have had liabilities as a nominee at least as great as Obama, but his white working-class liabilities will be a serious issue.

--Jonathan Chait

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