This Is Clinton Country (for Now Anyway)

by Jonathan Cohn | March 4, 2008

TOLEDO, Ohio--One reason Barack Obama's campaign turned into such a juggernaut over the last few weeks was that he made impressive inroads among Hillary Clinton's base of white working class voters.  Everybody knew Obama could make college students and upper-middle-class professionals swoon; after the South Carolina primary, it was equally clear that he had a lock on the African American vote. But it wasn't until the last few contests -- particularly Wisconsin, an overwhelmingly white state where Obama won outright among voters making less than $50,000 -- that Obama began to show he could win blue-collar voters, too. 

Ohio, though, has proven tougher.  After pulling nearly even with Clinton in the polls, in the last few days Obama has slipped.  And while the contest here is hardly a must-win for Obama -- he remains the prohibitive favorite to finish the primary race with the most committed delegates, no matter what happens today -- Ohio is a must-win, or nearly a must-win, for the general election.

After all, if white working class voters here have serious problems with Obama, then white working class voters in other states probably will, too. Already, we've seen a poll from Pew showing that -- in a hypothetical one-on-one matchup with McCain -- a substantial number of hewhite Democratic voters would vote for the Republican ticket.  Obama's ability to draw independents would still win him the general election, this same poll showed, but not by a sustantially larger margin than Clinton would.

So my question for today is not simply how white working class voters here will vote but why -- and whether the apparent ambivalence about Obama is something he would have difficulty overcoming in the fall.  To help sort this out, I decided I'd continue what has become an election day ritual for me, interviewing voters on the way out of the polls in order to form some early -- and, yes, highly unscientific -- impressions.

For my stake-outs, I picked two polling places in the northern part of Toledo: an American Legion post down the street from a GM powertrain plant and a church just a few blocks away from what is now a Daimler-Chrysler Assembly plant.  (It's the Toledo North plant where they make Jeeps; Clinton actually visited here yesterday before her rally at the University of Toledo.)

The two polling places cover nine precincts and a little over 4,000 voters, most of them apparently working class white.  They are strongly Democratic by registration and, at least in the last few elections, by vote.  Incubment Representative Marcy Kaptur, who is among the Democratic Party's most unabashedly populist members, has carried these precincts easily in recent contests.

And what did I find?  On the one hand, this was clearly Clinton country -- with sentiment running even more strongly for her than I expected going in.  I don't want to pretend that my canvassing of about two dozen voters over the course of two hours was sufficiently random or large to qualify as a poll.  Among other things, it was a pretty raw morning with blistering winds -- it's about 15 degrees with wind chill -- so folks weren't in the mood for long, introspective conversations on why they voted the way they did.

Still, a few patterns emerged.  I was struck by the fact that nearly every voter I met -- all but one, to be precise -- told me that he or she was voting for Clinton.  The economy clearly loomed large in their minds; experience, though, seemed to loom even larger.

One such voter who was thinking along these lines was Richard Crawford, 61.  A Teamster, he told me that "NAFTA was number one for me" -- since, he said, the treaty had hurt his business.  But when I asked how he cast his ballot, he told me "I voted for Hillary, I don't think Obama has enough experience." 

"I don't think he has enough experience," said Nancy Zalewiski, a retired schoolteacher, mentioning that she was particularly interested in electing a woman president. "But I'd like to see a Clinton-Obama ticket."

In some cases, the key factor didn't seem to be so much as experience as sheer familiarity -- with Clinton or, in some cases, the Clintons.  It wasn't anything Clinton had said or done recently, they told me, so much as a comfort level with her that Obama -- despite all of his advertising and recent media coverage -- had yet to establish.

"I just trusted Clinton more than I trust Obama," said Gary Rowe, a reitred phone company worker, noting that his investments had done much better during the 90s than they had done recently.

My one outlier was a man named Harold Ornega, a retired city worker who told me was unambiguously for Obama -- and unambiguously against Clinton.  "I'm for change and he's a fresh start," Ornega told me. "I don't want any more of this tap-dancing around from politicians."  

Ornega was as enthusiastic about his position as anybody I heard all day; in fact, told me he was so opposed to Clinton that he wouldn't even vote for her in the general election, although he didn't imagine himself voting for a Republican, either.  (He said he might just stay home, if that's what happened.) 

Of course, two of the Clinton supporters I met told me the very opposite: they'd vote for McCain over Obama, if that's how the nominations came down.  And one of them said she thought she'd have plenty of company.  "I don't think Obama has enough experience to be president, while Hillary has already been to the White House," said Karen Randall. "I've talked to a lot of people who said they would vote for McCain over Obama."

Still, when I asked people about a hypothetical McCain-Obama matchup, most seemed determined to stick with the Democratic Party.  One such person was Tanya Miller, another Clinton supporter. "You never know," she said, turning to Randall.  "He might work out just fine."

--Jonathan Cohn 

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