Reagan Dems as kingmakers
By: Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — It will be a supreme irony if the slice of the electorate known as Reagan Democrats decides the first presidential election with a woman or an African American as the Democratic nominee. Reagan Democrats are principally white, blue-collar men, known colloquially as Joe Sixpack. They migrated to the Republican Party in 1980 when Ronald Reagan won the loyalty of working-class America. He did it principally by appealing to cultural issues and a sense of alienation among these voters that their party had lost its way, catering to women and minorities and championing issues that were left of center.
Reagan was a former Democrat who had voted for FDR, and he often said that he had no left the party; the party had left him. When Bill Clinton ran for the presidency in 1992, his pollster, Stan Greenberg, spent so much time analyzing Reagan Democrats in Macomb County, Michigan, that Clinton once asked, “How many electoral votes are there in Macomb County?” Plenty, it turns out, because Democrats can’t win the White House without taking back a fair share of Reagan Democrats.
Clinton managed to get these votes in part because he had a cultural affinity for working-class people. He had come from that background in Arkansas, and knew how to relate to them both stylistically and substantively with bread-and-butter policies that responded to their needs.
Bill Clinton has spent much of his time this election cycle courting rural, working-class voters on behalf of his wife, and his campaigning paid off with wins in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and now Indiana.
Hillary too has targeted these voters, transforming herself into their heroine, downing shots of whiskey and displaying such tenacity and toughness that she won their admiration. Obama by contrast has had a hard time relating to lunch-bucket voters who don’t have college degrees. He comes across as too remote and high-minded to fully grasp the hard scrabble facts of lives lived from paycheck to paycheck although both he and his wife, Michelle, come from modest economic circumstances. Recalling how his mother was once on food stamps and Michelle’s father continued to work despite being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Obama managed to inject more of his personal story into the debate in this latest round of primaries and do a bit better among these down-scale voters.
Still, there are ominous signs for the general election should Obama become the nominee. The portion of the electorate dubbed Reagan Democrats, about three in 10 voters, is a group shrinking in size but critical because they are swing voters. If half of them, or even a third, swing to John McCain in November, that could tilt the election to the Republicans. McCain is working hard to bring them over to the GOP with his personal story being the prime attraction. All Americans respect McCain’s heroism as a prisoner of war, and non-college educated working men are particularly drawn to the narrative of his life. It will be up to Obama if he’s the one to face McCain to bring the debate back to an unpopular war and an unpopular president, both of which McCain is tied to whether he likes it or not.
Obama shifted the style of his campaigning in Indiana and North Carolina away from the big, iconic rallies, to more shoe-leather campaigning, ducking into factories, meeting voters in diners, getting down with voters in a way that brought him closer to the everyday reality of their lives. It made him seem more like a regular guy instead of some exotic creature who’d dropped down from the sky. Obama has a lot more work to do to convince Reagan Democrats he can speak for them, but realizing he has a problem is the first step to fixing it.
Published in The Messenger 5.14.08