Obama struggles to win over the white working class

SOMERSET, Pa. — They are the coveted, talked about and hyper-analyzed voters of the 2012 election: women, Hispanics, independents. But President Barack Obama's re-election also depends heavily on a 60-year-old Sears salesman named Ed Marke.

For the first time since backing Ronald Reagan in 1984, Marke is considering voting Republican. "It's not what Obama has done, it's what he hasn't done," he said. "He's accomplished virtually nothing."

Marke hasn't made up his mind, but looking out from the store in Somerset last week, he saw people just like him: white working-class voters scraping by and giving up on Obama's promised hope and change.

"He sounded like he was going to make things better, but it just seems like it's going downhill. I'm still poor," Amy Yutzy, who earns $20,000 as a nurse's aide, said as she loaded her car with groceries from Save-A-Lot. "Put Bill Clinton back in the office and we'll be better off."

Yutzy said she has decided to sit out the election. If enough blue-collar voters follow suit or back Republicans, Obama will face considerable pressure to keep together his coalition of minorities, women, college-educated whites and independent voters.

"They know that in the Obama campaign, and they are worried about it. But so far, it's looking like he's okay," said Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress.

White working-class voters have trended toward Republicans for decades, turned off by liberal attitudes on social causes that emerged in the 1960s, and growing more insecure with their job skills and increasingly skeptical toward government.

It's particularly acute in western Pennsylvania, which has lost good paying jobs in steel mills and manufacturing plants. Obama has been viewed with suspicion ever since he described small-town voters in 2008 as so bitter with their economic circumstances they "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them," a remark Hillary Rodham Clinton played up in their divisive primary.

Nationally, Obama lost the white working-class vote by 18 points. But in the 2010 midterm elections, congressional Democrats saw a 30-point deficit among the same group and lost control of the House.

"While the first number is a figure Obama could live with repeating, the second could very well prove fatal," Teixeira wrote in the New Republic.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Obama improving his standing among key constituencies except whites with annual household incomes under $50,000. His numbers were stuck at 40 percent favorable, 56 percent unfavorable.

"When he first started, I was hoping he'd keep to what he said he would do. But he didn't," said Zach Ritchie, 26, of Johnstown, who said he'll vote Republican out of protest.

The headwinds facing Obama are a reminder that signs of an economic comeback belie the setbacks the recession has dealt many Americans. Towns across western Pennsylvania, a critical area in a critical state for Obama, remain depressed. Ritchie said work building greenhouses in West Virginia dried up four years ago, and he has not been able to find work in his hometown.

"A lot of people I know who voted for (Obama) before won't again. Just because of the economy," said Amy Utmik, 35, who was grabbing lunch at a KFC in Johnstown. A Democrat whose husband drives a truck, she sheepishly confessed she was turned off by the slightest thing about Obama — the splashy family vacations in Hawaii and the couture dresses worn by his wife.

Utmik said her support for Obama has fallen from 100 percent to about 65 percent. But she's unsure about his presumed Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, whom she finds "a bit pompous."

Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who quit the race last week, got as far as he did in part by emphasizing his blue-collar roots and social conservatism. When Santorum opened his campaign last summer in Somerset, he directly called on Reagan Democrats such as Marke, the salesman at Sears, to rally behind him.

Romney has his own challenges. The Washington Post-ABC News poll showed his unfavorable numbers among whites with incomes under $50,000 has jumped from 29 percent to 49 percent, no doubt somewhat attributable to a string of gaffes he has made calling attention to his wealth.

The Obama campaign has enlisted Vice President Joe Biden to define Romney as protective of the wealthy. In a speeches across the country, including Thursday in New Hampshire, Biden accuses Romney of seeking tax breaks for the rich and touts Obama's proposed "Buffett Rule," which would ensure millionaires pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes.

Democrats are also trying to play up Romney's support for the House GOP budget plan, which would cut funding for programs that serve the poor and middle class.

"If the contrast is made successfully by the Obama campaign, I think he's got prospects of holding his own" among working-class white voters, said Ray Wrabley, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He said Obama is helped because he is no longer an "exotic" candidate.

"Now the Romney people, obviously, will have lots of money to portray the president as out of touch and a big government job crusher," Wrabley added. Romney's strategy includes contrasting Obama's promises with reality.

White working-class voters "will be in an interesting petri dish," said Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Keystone State Republican strategist. "When you look at the polls, Obama scores better on a lot of personal attributes but terrible on things connected to the economy.

"So Obama will be more successful with these folks if he keeps the focus on what are perceived to be Romney's shortcomings. The more the race is focused on the economy, the better it is in western Pennsylvania for Romney."

Pennsylvania has voted Democratic for president in every election since 1992, but Republicans are increasingly hopeful about the state. Romney told supporters in Harrisburg this month he would win the state on a message tailored to the middle class.

A new Quinnipiac poll shows Obama leading Romney by 3 percentage points. Obama's campaign is not taking chances — already, it has 18 offices cross the state.

At one in Johnstown, posters provide talking points aimed at working-class voters: tighter controls on credit card companies secured under Obama and Democrats, expanded Pell Grants and months of private-sector growth.

The message comes atop Obama's larger pitch, that he pulled the economy from the ditch and needs more time to get it on track.

"He needs another four years to make everything as good as he said he would," said Michael George, 22, of Johnstown, a cook at Red Lobster and community college student. "I'm trying to have faith it will change. But just looking at the economy, it's making me really doubt that."

He's sticking with Obama. Some of his friends, he said, are a different story.

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@tampabay.com.

Obama struggles to win over the white working class 04/13/12 [Last modified: Monday, April 16, 2012 12:18am]

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