In the fierce campaign between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, a battle dominated by questions of race and gender, white men have emerged as perhaps the single critical swing constituency.
The competition for the support of white men, particularly those defined as working class, will shape the showdown between Clinton and Obama in Pennsylvania‘s Democratic presidential primary on April 22. Obama (Ill.) won majorities among those voters in what appeared to be breakthrough victories in Wisconsin and Virginia last month. But he badly lost working-class white men to Clinton (N.Y.) in Ohio and Texas two weeks ago, keeping the outcome of the Democratic race in doubt indefinitely.
The results in Ohio in particular raised questions about whether Obama can attract support from this crucial demographic. They also brought to the forefront the question of whether racial prejudice would be a barrier to his candidacy in some of the major industrial battlegrounds in the general election if he becomes the Democratic nominee.
An examination of exit polls in Wisconsin and Ohio, states with striking similarities, shows that many more working-class white men in Ohio said race was a factor in their vote on March 4 than was the case in Wisconsin. The analysis makes clear that race was not the deciding factor in the Ohio primary but did contribute to Clinton’s margin of victory.
David Axelrod, senior adviser to Obama, said he is uncertain how concerned the campaign should be about the influence of race on working-class white voters. “It bears some closer examination,” he said. “I think for older voters, it’s more of a leap than for younger voters. But I don’t think it’s an insuperable barrier.”
Obama has sought to transcend race in his campaign, and found considerable success in that pursuit in many states. Racial divisions have shown up in Southern states, as they did last Tuesday in Mississippi and earlier in Alabama. In both primaries, Obama overwhelmingly carried the black vote and Clinton overwhelmingly carried the white vote. But in smaller states outside the South—such as Iowa, Kansas and Utah—where there are far fewer minorities, Obama has done extremely well with white voters.
One view in Obama’s campaign is that his poor showing in Ohio primarily reflected that the state has a high number of older voters. An analysis of exit polls in the two states undercuts that assertion. There were roughly similar percentages of white working-class men over 45 and under 45 in both states. It is accurate that Obama did far better with younger men in both states, but he won younger and older white men in Wisconsin but lost both groups in Ohio.
One difference between the two states is the influence of race on voting patterns. Among white men in Wisconsin, 11 percent said race was an important factor in their vote. In Ohio, 27 percent of white men said race was an important factor. That is not enough to explain the entire difference in the voting patterns of white men in the two states, but more than enough to explain at least part of Obama’s problem.
Securing the votes of white men has become a critical factor in the Democratic race. Throughout the primary season, Clinton has dominated the votes of white women, but she and Obama have battled for support from white men.
In 27 states where exit polls were conducted, starting with Iowa on Jan. 3 and ending with Mississippi last week, Clinton won the white male vote 11 times and Obama 10 times. In five states, they basically split the votes of white men. Former senator John Edwards (N.C.) carried white men in South Carolina.
Obama has generally won decisively among white men with college degrees; Clinton has consistently done far better with those who did not graduate from college. Obama broke that pattern in mid-February in Virginia and Wisconsin. He barely lost among white men without college degrees in Virginia and won them in Wisconsin by 60 percent to 38 percent.