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No Novelty to Obama's Weakness with Blue-Collar Pa. Dems

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) talks to Paul Thiel, a retired chocolate factory worker, after church services in Lebanon, Pa., April 20, 2008. (Associated Press)

By Alec MacGillis
Barack Obama's 9-point loss in Pennsylvania, coming after his 10-point loss in Ohio, has many Democrats worrying: if he is the party's nominee, will he be able to win back the blue-collar Democrats that Hillary Clinton won by wide margins in these key Rust Belt states? Exit polls yesterday showed that Clinton won lower-income white voters by 32 points, and a quarter of Clinton supporters said they might cross party lines to vote for John McCain if Obama is the nominee.

Those numbers understandably give Democrats pause. But here's something to bear in mind: if many blue-collar Democrats in Pennsylvania in fact do not come out for the party's ticket in the fall, it will hardly be the first time, or the unprecedented shock to the party's prospects that the Clinton campaign is now suggesting. In the last two election cycles, the Democratic presidential candidates have dramatically underperformed with members of their own party in blue-collar and rural areas of Pennsylvania, lagging or breaking even in counties where they have an edge in voter registration, with many older, more conservative Democrats voting for George W. Bush or staying home.

Take Washington County, in the hard-hit Monongahela Valley in the state's southwest: Democrats hold a 84,000 to 47,000 edge in voter registration -- yet John Kerry won the county by less than a percentage point against Bush. Nonetheless, Kerry carried the state based mainly on his big lead in Philadelphia and its suburbs.

Obama strategist David Axelrod seemed to be making this case for downplaying Obama's poor performance with blue-collar voters on NPR today. "The white working class has gone to the Republican nominee for many elections, going back even to the Clinton years. This is not new that Democratic candidates don't rely solely on those votes," he said.

Clinton's campaign argues, of course, that even if some of these more conservative, Rust Belt Reagan Democrats are unwinnable in November, she would still fare better among them in the fall than would Obama -- a valid point, judging by primary results. But the Obama campaign counters that it may make up some of that difference by doing better than Clinton would in November with independent voters, and even some Republicans, who were not eligible to vote in yesterday's primary. Indeed, talking to voters in the Reading area, it was easy to find Republicans or independents who said they would have voted for Obama in the primary if they remembered to switch their party registration ahead of the state's deadline. And, speaking to voters in places like Washington County, this reporter was as likely to find Republicans and independents who supported Obama as Democrats who did.

In the languishing steel town of Charleroi, a customer service worker at one of the few companies in town, a heating-and-cooling parts manufacturer, said that she, a Democrat, would not back Obama in the fall because he "doesn't even pledge allegiance to the flag," a mistaken allegation that circulated widely online. But the company's co-owner, Bruce Arnoldt, a 45-year-old Republican who drives a Jaguar, said that he was seriously considering Obama over McCain, because he's lost some confidence in Republican governance and because Obama "seems level-headed and reasonable."

Yesterday, Washington County favored Clinton by a whopping 70-30 point margin. Obama will need to capture enough Clinton supporters to vastly improve on that margin come November -- but to match his own party's past underwhelming performance in places like Washington County, he won't need to improve on it by as much as some now say.

By Web Politics Editor  |  April 23, 2008; 4:19 PM ET
Categories:  B_Blog , Barack Obama  
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