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Monday, August 4, 2008

Which way, Obama? A candidate at the crossroads

Today's Washington Post reports on new poll numbers that are sure to be a major topic of discussion: A new national poll by the Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University shows that Obama is leading 2-1 against McCain among low-wage workers. The poll, the Post says, "included interviews with 1,350 randomly selected workers 18 to 64 years old who put in at least 30 hours a week but earned $27,000 or less last year."

As might be imagined, Obama scores very highly among Black and Hispanic workers. But here's what is going to come as a surprise to some:

But even among white workers -- a group of voters that has been targeted by both parties as a key to victory in November -- Obama leads McCain by 10 percentage points, 47 percent to 37 percent, and has the advantage as the more empathetic candidate.

These individuals, please note, are not just those "hard working white people" you may have heard about during the primaries; they are very hard working white people, as anyone who has held a low-paid job knows. As the article also notes:

Obama's standing with the white workers runs counter to an impression, dating from the primary season, that he struggles to attract support from that group. McCain advisers have said for months that they think the Republican can win a significant share of those voters because of Obama's performance in the spring.

But there is a downside to this: As the poll also finds, low-paid workers also tend to be pessimistic about the likelihood that either candidate will really address their problems. The article doesn't get into this, but people who feel that way often don't bother to vote. Although the coming election promises record turnout levels, just as during the Democratic primary, Obama's continuing move to the political center--which is sometimes transparently opportunistic--works against his efforts to get cynical, turned off voters to come out for him. His current strategy, which seeks to shore up his chances among middle class, independent, and swing voters, could reflect a lack of confidence that habitual nonvoters can be motivated to get out to the polls in significantly greater numbers than in previous elections. Remember, we are talking about roughly HALF of the entire potential electorate--enough to elect Obama in a landslide if they were given a good reason to do so.

So Obama is on the horns of a dilemma: The more he panders to (um, er, tries to solicit the support of) the middle class, the more he turns off the working class, and vice-versa. Perhaps he will find a strategy that cuts both ways. I know! Why doesn't he run on the principles that won him the Democratic nomination?

Photo: Sydney Sun Herald

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