POLITICO.COM – by John Fortier – March 12, 2008
It’s Nov. 5, 2008, in Ohio, and Barack Obama has just lost the presidency to John McCain. The result was confirmed when Columbiana County reported a 500-vote margin for McCain. Party leaders, heads in their hands, moan in unison, “How could this have happened?”
Then a voice from the back of the room chimes in. “I know,” says long-forgotten second-place finisher Hillary Rodham Clinton. “You should have nominated me. Did you see how well I did in Ohio and the 6th District? I would have had a chance with blue-collar voters, and I would be your president.”
A far-fetched scenario perhaps, but many Ohio Democrats are wondering whether Clinton might be more electable than Obama. Clinton dominated rural and blue-collar districts such as Ohio’s 6th in the March 4 primary. And lunch pail and breadbasket voters are key swing voters, concentrated in the competitive battleground states.
The 6th Congressional District gave Clinton, who won 70 percent of the vote, her widest margin of victory of any district in Ohio. The district starts in Northeast Ohio, on the Pennsylvania border in Mahoning County, just south of Youngstown. It continues along the borders of West Virginia and, ultimately, Kentucky, following the banks of the Ohio River. It is about 50 percent rural and 31 percent blue collar, according to The Almanac of American Politics. Clinton won every county easily. Only in Athens County, home of Ohio University, did she fail to break 60 percent.
The rural and blue-collar voters of Ohio are likely to be more important swing voters than those Obama courts. Obama appeals to independents, but to young, educated and upscale independents. Picture the guy consulting on his MacBook Air in Starbucks, not the cable guy. Take California, for example, which Clinton won but where Obama won independents by more than 20 points. A recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that the state’s independent voters were younger and more educated, and favored Democrats over Republicans by 13 points. These independents are Obama voters, but most would likely vote for any Democrat in a general election.
On the other hand, rural and blue-collar voters are more up for grabs. Whether you call them Reagan Democrats, Perot voters, NASCAR dads or security moms, they are not completely at home with either party. In some instances, economic populism might incline them to vote for Democrats, while traditional morals, patriotism or distrust of government can pull them into the Republican camp. Most importantly, these voters are concentrated in key Midwestern battleground states.
Ohio is ground zero for the November election, and Clinton won it impressively. In 2004, a switch of Ohio’s 20 electoral votes to John F. Kerry would have put him in the White House. Clinton should also play well in Michigan and Pennsylvania, two big states that lean slightly Democratic.
Obama can claim recent victories in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin, each with good chunks of rural and blue-collar voters. But even in those states, Clinton’s strength was among working-class voters who will be more up for grabs in the general election.
Ohio’s 6th is a swing district at the presidential level, but Democrats have held the House seat in recent years. President Bush won it with 51 percent of the vote, but Democratic Rep. Charlie Wilson took the district handily in his first run in 2006 and looks safe in 2008. Before Wilson, the district was held by now-Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat. Clinton won easily in other rural and blue-collar districts, but Strickland gave her an additional boost in the 6th District, which also ensures that he will be on the vice presidential short list. A Clinton-Strickland ticket would be formidable in Ohio.
Clinton at the top of the ticket would benefit a number of freshman Democrats whose districts look like Ohio’s 6th: Zack Space, whose district borders the 6th, and Christopher P. Carney, who represents Pennsylvania’s 10th District. Even Minnesota’s Timothy J. Walz and Wisconsin’s Steve Kagen, who have endorsed Obama, might find that a Clinton general election campaign would speak more to the concerns of their constituents. And Clinton’s appeal to working-class voters could help Democrats compete in rural, blue-collar Republican seats like Tim Walberg’s in Michigan. Of course, Obama’s campaign would play well in suburban districts, which would aid other candidates. But a large number of Democratic freshman and Republican open seats represent districts where Clinton’s appeal to white working-class voters would resonate.
Last week’s Clinton win has blue-collar Democrats grumbling that Obama might succeed in attracting more young, socially liberal and African-American voters but give an opening to McCain to appeal to the white working class.
That is the argument that Clinton is trying to make to her own party, a message that may have gotten through in Ohio but that will need to resound more strongly for her to win the nomination.