Politics & Government

Indiana shows why Obama might lose to McCain

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., left, chats with veterans, in North Liberty, Ind.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., left, chats with veterans, in North Liberty, Ind. Jae C. Hong / AP

BROWNSBURG, Ind. — Exhibit A of Barack Obama's problem with white folks: Indiana, home to a lot of disgruntled Democrats who could help put John McCain in the White House — particularly people backing Hillary Clinton in Tuesday's primary.

They tend to be working-class. They dot smaller communities like this one, a few miles outside Indianapolis. A generation ago, they were called "Reagan Democrats"; upset with Democrats' increasing liberalism, they bolted their party to vote for Ronald Reagan, who spoke to them in a way that Ted Kennedy and Walter Mondale never could.

In 2008, many of these voters are leery of Obama, and they see presumptive Republican nominee McCain as having the toughness and experience that a president needs. Race undoubtedly plays a role, though it's difficult to say how much. It also could be partly a reaction to Obama's perceived liberal elitism.

The McCain camp, sensing that it may lose independents to Obama, thinks it can win over some of the Democrats who are skeptical of Obama.

Kellie Stewart, a secretary from Brownsburg, for example: "I have a hard time saying 'President Obama.' I just don't think that sounds American," she said.

Lou Meyer, a housewife in Sellersburg, had similar thoughts. "He won't wear a flag pin. Anyone who can't stand up for their country, I won't vote for," she said. "If it's Obama versus McCain, I'm between a rock and a hard place, but I'm not going to vote for Obama."

Dennis Whetsell, a Brownsburg accountant, voiced other concerns: "Obama doesn't have experience. McCain could work much better with Congress."

How, he was asked, could he vote for an anti-war candidate like Clinton and then back McCain? Because, he said, the answer to the war isn't simple.

"I'd like to get the troops home as quickly as we can," said Whetsell, "but we also can't allow the area to fall into the hands of Iran or Syria." McCain, he said, understands all the nuances.

A national poll released Thursday by the Pew Research Center showed Clinton with a 40-point lead among white voters who didn't attend college — up from 10 points in March. Her lead among white Democrats who earn less than $50,000 increased from two points to 24. The poll of 1,502 adults was conducted April 23-27. Its margin of error was 3 percentage points.

Michael Dimock, an associate director at Pew, said it's "a tough, tough question" as to how much race played into voters' views of Obama.

"There are so many things going on, and they're all interrelated," Dimock said. "Is there potential for racial biases? Certainly. Are they potentially more intense among white working-class voters? Yes."

But, Dimock said, concerns about Obama's inexperience and "differentness" — such as his name and perceived elitism — also resonate among white working-class voters.

On the flip side, Bill Clinton has successfully spoken the language of white working-class voters through the years, and "Hillary's gotten better at it," said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University.

"Obama's just very culturally different," Black said. "He's obviously not part of the white working class. And his whole life experience is in very different environments."

Black noted that "the most obvious thing about Obama is his race" and that may mean he has to work all the harder to prove to white working-class voters that he's interested in them.

Meanwhile, McCain potentially reaps the benefit. Many voters say they see him as a strong second choice behind Clinton.

For one thing, he's viewed as more centrist than either Obama or Clinton, according to the Pew poll. Plus, people just like him.

"He's honest. He's not afraid to look you in the eye and tell you what he thinks," said Cheryl Pauley, a Brownsburg housewife. "Obama is a yes man."

It isn't just Indiana. Wherever there are white working-class people, there's suspicion of Obama.

The Pew poll showed that 23 percent of self-described conservative and moderate Democrats say they'd vote for McCain over Obama in November. If Clinton's the nominee, that number drops to 14 percent.

"Our message is somewhat geared toward that group. ...We're not trying to get a majority of blue-collar Democrats," said Charlie Black, a McCain senior adviser. "But if McCain were to get 20 percent nationally of blue-collar Democrats, he wins."

"It's partially cultural," Charlie Black said. "They don't like abortion on demand. They do want to keep their guns, some of them. And there's some hostility to big government among that group."

Charlie Black added that he thought that as many as half of blue-collar Democrats aren't turning out in primaries but would vote in the general election.

Then there's Arkansas, a state where Clinton is strong because of personal ties and because it's loaded with rural, culturally conservative Democrats. McCain aides think it's unlikely that Obama would win the state. But some of them figure that Clinton would, taking six electoral votes from the Republican plate — and they're not sure where McCain could make them up.

The good news for Obama is that while he may have problems with the Democratic base, he still polls well among independent voters, according to the Pew poll. He leads McCain by 52 to 41 percent among independents, while Clinton trails McCain among them by 49 to 45 percent.

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