For Democrats, worrisome divide along class lines

Pa. split suggests trouble ahead

Senator Hillary Clinton spoke at Wilson Senior High School yesterday in Pennsylvania. Senator Hillary Clinton spoke at Wilson Senior High School yesterday in Pennsylvania. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Peter S. Canellos
Globe Staff / April 20, 2008

PITTSBURGH - The Lawrenceville neighborhood, with its car-repair shops and convenience markets giving way to coffee houses and yoga salons, represents both sides of the upscale/downscale electoral coalition that Democrats hope will carry them to the White House in November.

But Lawrenceville, like many Democratic precincts, is increasingly divided in its politics along class lines. Last week, while 27-year-old Bronwyn Loughren, co-owner of an art gallery called La Vie, was expressing disgust over Hillary Clinton's hardball political tactics, beautician Jenny Skrinjar, 53, of the Style North Hair Salon was fuming about Barack Obama. "He looks down on people," she said.

It is a division that seems to have widened as the pri maries moved to blue-collar states such as Ohio. And it's just one of several fractures in the Democratic coalition: Obama and Clinton have split the Democrats along age and some racial lines as well.

But the class issue looms the largest in Pennsylvania, which will go to the polls on Tuesday. And party leaders - including roughly 300 undecided "superdelegates" nationwide who will probably provide the winning margin for either candidate - will be looking at more than who wins and who loses: They will look for whether either candidate can penetrate a class barrier that has seen lower-income white Democrats go for Clinton while higher-income voters generally prefer Obama.

Increasingly, the fear among Democrats is that one group or the other might opt for Republican John McCain, should their favored Democrat not get the nomination. And in places like Lawrenceville, a section of Pittsburgh, preferences have only hardened as voters have gotten to know more about the candidates.

"I don't know if I could vote for Hillary Clinton" if she were the nominee, said Loughren, the gallery owner who supports Obama and decries Clinton's "fierceness." "Once I concentrate on what John McCain's positions are, I might go for her. But right now I don't know."

Clinton's campaign, for its part, has asserted repeatedly that blue-collar voters are crucial to winning the big industrial states that often swing between the Democrats and Republicans in presidential elections - places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

Supporters of Obama, who has generated strong enthusiasm among younger voters, blacks, and people with negative views of Washington, have countered that his backers won't necessarily come out for Clinton. If so, it would deprive the Democrats of a chance to make inroads in places like Virginia, North Carolina, and Colorado - all traditionally Republican states that could move into the Obama camp in the fall.

"I don't think the electoral map will look like it did when I ran," the 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry, now an ardent Obama backer, said last week, in predicting that having Obama could boost the party's chances in some former GOP strongholds.

Obama, whose comments about the "bitter" feelings of working-class voters dominated campaign news last week, could make the superdelegates' decision easier by winning a large share of Pennsylvania's blue-collar voters on Tuesday. A stronger-than-expected performance by Obama among lower-income whites would go a long way to shoring up his support among superdelegates, analysts said.

But no one knows whether he can do it.

"That's the $64,000 question right now," said Scott Keeter, director of survey research for the Pew Research Center, who has conducted a detailed analysis of the "traits and values" of different Democratic constituencies and why they're lining up with either Clinton or Obama.

Keeter pointed out that white Democrats without a college education have voted overwhelmingly for Clinton in most states - sometimes by margins of 20 and even as high as 40 points.

"It's clear that there are reservations on the part of some socially conservative voters about Obama," Keeter said.

The Pew survey suggested that racial attitudes may play a role: Democrats who said they objected to interracial dating or felt civil rights laws had gone too far were far more likely to say they'd consider supporting McCain over Obama in November, should Obama defeat Clinton.

But not everyone is writing off Obama's chances with working-class voters.

Bill Green, a public relations consultant and local political analyst in Pittsburgh, said he believes Obama's controversial comments - suggesting working-class voters are bitter about their economic plight, and thus cast their votes based on religious values or gun ownership - might actually help him with Pennsylvania's blue-collar voters, who are indeed frustrated.

"I'm not sure he was so far off the mark," said Green. "I don't think that was a misstep for him."

Added Green: "The only people who have tried to make those comments an issue are Washington people. I think he hit on something here. These citizens have been bypassed since the steel mills went down in the '70s."

In Lawrenceville, once a community of factory workers for the steel mills that lined the Allegheny River, there remains a large working-class population of multiple races, existing alongside a growing artistic community that has attracted fine restaurants and music clubs.

Working-class people in Lawrenceville had mixed reactions to Obama, with blacks in particular standing by him.

"Most of us are hoping and praying that he can make a change for everyone - every type of individual in the United States," said Loretta Millender, an African-American waitress at the lunch counter at Starr Discount store. "We need a young president that has different thoughts than the old presidents have."

At the front counter of Starr Discount, however, Donna Blakely, who is white, expressed a preference for Clinton: "She's smart. She knows what she's doing. She's going to help the people and she's not for the war."

Blakely said she just doesn't get Obama. "I don't know what he's talking about," she said quietly. "He just doesn't make any sense to me."

Not all working-class whites agreed. Some men, in particular, seemed receptive to Obama's anti-Washington message.

"They're all a den of thieves, so you go with the boy who hasn't been there so long," said Bill Deeley, a 62-year-old retiree. "He's not a senior member of the [Washington] club."

Few white working-class women agreed. Several expressed open suspicion about Obama, with beautician Barbara Kelly, 57, saying, "I just don't trust him. That's my own feeling. That's the bottom line. It's just my feeling. More will come out. We all have our feelings, right?"

And Kelly, like other working-class women who were interviewed, approved of the harder edge that Clinton has been showing recently.

"She's a good strong woman," Kelly said.

The preference was largely reversed among more upscale voters, who tended to find Clinton too harsh and Obama a breath of fresh air.

Bill Barron, a developer who is renovating two houses in Lawrenceville, said, "I'm an Obama supporter. I believe that he may have the ability to unite the country in a way it hasn't been for a long time, and we need to be united."

Until recently, Democrats seemed to think that this campaign, between people seeking to be the first black or first woman president, could elevate the party to new heights. But in the nearly four months since the Iowa caucuses, voting patterns have become more predictable, and analysts can only wonder if people's views are hardening in a negative way as well.

"There certainly are recognizable patterns in who is supporting whom, and those patterns keep reappearing, whether you're talking about polls or the actual voting in states," said Keeter, of the Pew Research Center, citing in particular Obama's big support among blacks and young people, and Clinton's support among the white working class.

Asked if he would expect any big changes in the pattern in Pennsylvania, Keeter sighed and concluded, "No, I really wouldn't."

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