Blue-collar vote a key for Clinton, Obama

Results in N.H., Iowa provide a puzzle for rivals

Email|Print| Text size + By Scott Helman
Globe Staff / January 13, 2008

The Democratic caucus and primary results from Iowa and New Hampshire tell a tale of two elections. And not just in terms of who won.

In Iowa, Senator Barack Obama scored a wide victory by winning or matching Senator Hillary Clinton among voters of every income group, entrance poll data show. Obama won more support, for example, from those making less than $50,000 a year, according to a CNN poll.

But Obama's success with down-scale Iowans stands in stark contrast to his fate in New Hampshire, where Clinton won the primary partly by beating Obama handily among lower-income, less-educated voters concerned about their economic situation. Granite State voters making less than $50,000 chose Clinton over Obama 47 percent to 32 percent.

If such divergent preferences among Iowa and New Hampshire voters help explain why the two states sent two different candidates to victory, they also illustrate an important inflection point for the Democratic primary race as Clinton, Obama, and former North Carolina senator John Edwards clamor for votes in the weeks ahead.

It is unclear exactly why Iowa and New Hampshire produced seemingly contradictory results, but as the Democratic contest moves to Nevada, South Carolina, and the nearly two dozen states that vote on Feb. 5, the campaign that figures it out may have an inside track toward winning the party's presidential nomination.

Two key demographic groups are often called, in campaign parlance, the "beer track" and the "wine track." Obama attracts strong support from the latter - highly educated voters with high incomes who tend to be more content with their stations in life. Polls have shown Clinton stronger among lower-income voters who lack a college education and harbor deep economic anxieties.

Mark Mellman, who worked on Senator John F. Kerry's presidential campaign in 2004, said the two candidates have distinct "demographic constituencies."

"Iowa looked different than we expected, but those constituencies reasserted themselves in New Hampshire," Mellman said. "That's a phenomenon that will lend itself to a close, competitive race."

The competition for blue-collar voters promises to intensify if Edwards, who has aimed his populist campaign squarely at the middle class, fades and his supporters look for a more viable candidate.

The first test will be Nevada, which holds its Democratic caucuses on Saturday. The state has been hit especially hard by home foreclosures following the mortgage industry meltdown. Clinton's campaign chairman in the state, Rory Reid, said Nevada voters hurt by the economy will recognize that she is the candidate they can trust to help.

"On those kinds of bread-and-butter issues, people look to somebody who gives them comfort that they know how to solve them," said Reid, who is chairman of the Clark County Commission, the county government in Las Vegas. "She is the one that does that."

Yet Obama, the day after Clinton's win in New Hampshire, picked up the endorsement of the Las Vegas-based Culinary Workers Union, a politically powerful labor group representing 60,000 Nevada workers. Michael Green, a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada, said that because the union membership is largely middle- and lower-middle-class workers, its activism on Obama's behalf will blunt the appeal Clinton has had among that demographic group.

The years Obama spent as a community organizer in Chicago resonates with working-class Nevadans, said Pilar Weiss, political director of the Culinary Workers Union.

"They find that the work that he did in between his education - doing community organizing with laid-off folks from the steel mills and rail yards around social and economic justice issues - that really is a connection for them," Weiss said.

In the next big battleground, South Carolina, which holds its Democratic primary Jan. 26, the class issue becomes more complicated, because it intersects with race: Roughly half of Democratic voters are African-American, and their loyalties have so far been split between Obama and Clinton.

Bruce Ransom, a political science professor at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., said Obama's appeal among black voters would more than compensate for any disparity with Clinton in terms of support from white, working class voters - many of whom tend to be Republicans in South Carolina anyway, he said.

"This is why South Carolina will be different," Ransom said.

At times, Obama and Clinton have said things on the campaign trail that fed their different perceptions. Speaking to rural voters in Adel, Iowa, last summer, Obama expressed concern that while grocery stores were raising prices for produce, farmers were not seeing any of it.

"Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?" he asked. "I mean, they're charging a lot of money for this stuff."

Both Obama and Clinton have proposed programs to help low- and middle-income Americans, but Clinton, at least in New Hampshire, often made a point of talking about helping high school graduates who do not go on to college. Obama unveiled his plan for community colleges in Iowa, where he advertised it more than in New Hampshire.

Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign manager, said the campaign was more successful reaching out to working-class voters in Iowa than it was in New Hampshire.

"In a lot of respects, Iowa's just a lot more blue-collar state than New Hampshire is," he said. "So I'd say that we probably just did a better job getting those people in front of Barack than we did in New Hampshire."

Hildebrand said that the more voters get to know Obama, the more they recognize he understands their concerns as well as anyone. He said he thinks Obama will do well among working-class voters in the next two states, especially with help from the culinary union and other labor groups that have endorsed him.

"That's going to definitely improve his standing with blue-collar workers," Hildebrand said.

Clinton seems determined to appeal to those at the bottom of the income ladder. At a California union hall on Friday, she unveiled what her campaign said was a $70 billion economic stimulus plan to "boost the US economy and help families who have been hit hardest by the economic downturn across America."

Hildebrand said Obama's campaign was not worried, at least yet.

"I don't think anybody can sort of overthink this until we see if it's prevalent state by state," he said.

Indeed, the differences between the support Obama and Clinton received in Iowa and New Hampshire were striking.

In Iowa, Obama did as well or better than Clinton among not just lower-income voters but those who said the economy was their chief concern, entrance polls showed. He tied Clinton among voters from union households, and edged her among those who picked "cares about people" as the most important quality in a candidate.

In the New Hampshire primary, according to exit polls, Clinton did significantly better than Obama among voters with no high school education or whose top degree was a high school diploma. More than twice as many Granite Staters picked Clinton as the candidate who "cares about people." While Obama led Clinton widely among those who said their family was "getting ahead" financially, Clinton beat Obama by 10 percentage points among those who said they were "falling behind."

Past Democratic presidential contenders - including Gary Hart in 1984, and Paul Tsongas in 1992 - have been hurt by having support from wealthier, more progressive factions of the party but lacking broader backing from working-class, rank-and-file Democrats. While Obama has won endorsements from a range of political and community figures, his rivals may attempt to use John Kerry's endorsement of him last week to try to paint Obama as another Democrat out of touch with ordinary Americans.

Obama, though, has built perhaps the biggest and most diverse grass-roots political organization in history, drawing on thousands of people around the country, many of them decidedly lower- to middle-class, who have never been active in politics before. He says his "movement for change" is meant to lift everyone up.

Marcella Bombardieri of the Globe staff contributed to this report; Scott Helman can be reached at

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