- Chicago Tribune; by Jim Tankersley; March 30, 2008
RALEIGH, N.C. — Hillary Clinton kicked off her North Carolina primary campaign last week at a technical school that bills itself “College for the Real World.” After some pleasantries and a stab at a basketball reference, she began to outline what she called “the problems that we face” as a nation.
“Our American workers work harder and are more productive than anyone,” she said. “And yet for too many, here in North Carolina and elsewhere, that hard work doesn’t seem to be paying off.”
That same morning, Barack Obama hit New York City for a speech on America’s housing crisis. He opened with a 300-word history of the Founding Fathers’ views on free markets.
“In the more than two centuries since then,” he said, “we have struggled to balance the same forces that confronted Hamilton and Jefferson—self-interest and community; markets and democracy; the concentration of wealth and power, and the necessity of transparency and opportunity for each and every citizen.”
The difference in those speeches helps explain Clinton’s success in fashioning herself as the “Working Class Hero” of the 2008 Democratic presidential race.
On several scales of “readability,” which measure the level of education needed to understand a piece of writing, a sample of Clinton’s speeches scored on average two grade levels below Obama’s.
Typically, he speaks the language of high school seniors or college freshmen. She speaks the language of high-school sophomores or juniors — the language of the least-educated, lowest-earning voters.
Clinton makes for an unlikely modern Rosie the Riveter: a suburban-born corporate lawyer, a former first lady who never worked an assembly line, never picketed her employer. But across the country, particularly in manufacturing hubs feeling the pains of globalization, blue-collar voters have kept her candidacy alive.
Voters, analysts and political strategists trace that support to lingering affection for Clinton’s husband and the economic boom of his presidency — but only in part.
They also say a range of strategies has won Clinton working-class backing: her focus on economic problems and solutions, the clarity of her speeches, and a personal story of trial and survival that, in its own way, hits home with many voters suffering financially this year.
“For blue-collar Democratic voters choosing a candidate, the first question is usually, ‘Does he or she understand my life?’ ” said Mark Kornblau, who advised former Sen. John Edwards in his unsuccessful presidential bid this year. He said Clinton has improved in that area over the course of the campaign. “I don’t think it’s natural, and I don’t think it comes from any real life experience … but she uses language that really describes what’s going on in people’s lives.”
Melissa Dunston and her husband bought a new house two years ago. She lost her job before they made the first payment. They started a trucking company. When fuel prices shot up last year, they lost that too.
Dunston identifies with Clinton’s public struggles. “To have been through everything she has, she really is ‘I have overcome,’ ” said Dunston, a public school teacher’s assistant.
Clinton’s campaign doesn’t have all the money it needs to keep pace with Obama, she added, “but they still make it. You think, ‘I can relate to that.’ ”
It’s not unusual for wealthier Democrats to connect with the working class, as evidenced by Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Obama has successfully courted working Democrats in this campaign, winning majorities of them in states with large African-American populations, along with largely white Wisconsin and fairly white Virginia, according to exit polls.
But the blue-collar vote delivered campaign-sustaining victories to Clinton in Ohio and Texas earlier this month. In both states, exit polls showed her beating Obama by 15 percentage points among voters who lacked a a college degree. She also won solid majorities among those who earn $50,000 a year or less.
Those voters figure to drive primary results in West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana and North Carolina, which vote May 6; and Pennsylvania, next on the calendar, where polls indicate Clinton leads handily. They’re also a key piece of the Clinton campaign’s electability-themed argument to “superdelegates,” the Democratic elites who are all but assured of deciding the party’s nominee.
The working class “is a critical vote when superdelegates look at who’s going to be a stronger candidate” against presumed Republican nominee John McCain, said Mark Penn, Clinton’s chief strategist. “These are voters who in the past have gone either way in the general election.”
Others say Clinton’s blue-collar strength doesn’t necessarily suggest trouble for Obama in November.
“It’s not like working-class voters are turning away from him in droves,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who hasn’t endorsed either candidate. “They have two good choices.”
The Obama campaign says many working-class voters are getting to know him and his “record of fighting for economic fairness,” including his experience as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side. As working families learn more about Obama, spokesman Ben Labolt said, “they come to support him.”
Three in five Americans worry “a great deal” about the economy, a Gallup poll reported last week. A similar number of self-described working-class voters told the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in February that their incomes are falling behind the cost of living.
Clinton and Obama have tried to tap those anxieties with plans to create jobs, help homeowners ward off foreclosure, rewrite free-trade pacts, expand health-care coverage, retrain workers and reduce families’ college tuition costs.
Analysts say the candidates’ delivery of those plans, more than the details, make the difference for the working class. Obama talks in broader themes of hope and change, they say. Clinton talks more specifically of problems and solutions.
For working-class voters in Ohio and Texas, “Hillary Clinton was acting like the fighter they wanted in the face of desperation,” said Drew Westen, an Emory University psychology professor, political strategist and author of “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.”
At Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, Clinton offered a long list of proposals to soothe financially ailing Americans.
“I was impressed,” said Lisa Rosen, who is undecided. “She seemed more real than I expected.”