As the Clinton-Obama race tightens, it's a good time to dredge up this year-old column by Ronald Brownstein:
Obama's early support is following a pattern familiar from the campaigns of other brainy liberals with cool, detached personas and messages of political reform, from Eugene McCarthy in 1968 to Gary Hart in 1984 to Bill Bradley in 2000. Like those predecessors, Obama is running strong with well-educated voters but demonstrating much less support among those without college degrees….
Since the 1960s, Democratic nominating contests regularly have come down to a struggle between a candidate who draws support primarily from upscale, economically comfortable voters liberal on social and foreign policy issues, and a rival who relies mostly on downscale, financially strained voters drawn to populist economics and somewhat more conservative views on cultural and national security issues.
It's not much of an oversimplification to say that the blue-collar Democrats tend to see elections as an arena for defending their interests, and the upscale voters see them as an opportunity to affirm their values.
It's an interesting model. Obama does seem to fit that McCarthy/Hart/Bradley line of descent, though he can counteract that somewhat by pointing to his time as a community organizer. When I first read Brownstein's column last year, I had trouble picturing Hillary Clinton as a blue-collar hero, but exit polls from New Hampshire show her beating Obama (and Edwards) among union members and people without college degrees, while Obama took a (narrower) lead among college graduates. We'll see if that pattern holds in the primaries to come. (Obama recently picked up some major union endorsements in Nevada, which should eat into Clinton's working-class support in that state.)
More from Brownstein:
In modern times, the Democratic presidential race has usually pitted a warrior against a priest.
Warrior candidates stress their ability to deliver on kitchen table concerns and revel in political combat. They tout their experience and flout their scars. Their greatest strength is usually persistence, not eloquence; they don't so much inspire as reassure. Think of Harry Truman in 1948, Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and, in a somewhat more diluted fashion, Walter Mondale in 1984 and John Kerry in 2004.
The priests, whose lineage runs back through McCarthy to Adlai Stevenson, present a very different face. They write books and sometimes verse. They observe the campaign's hurly-burly through a filter of cool, witty detachment. Their campaigns become crusades, fueled as much by inchoate longing for a "new politics" as tangible demands for new policies.
That pattern doesn't look good for Obama, given that the only priest on Brownstein's list who actually won the nomination was Stevenson, and he was nominated before the modern primary system took hold. (I suppose George McGovern qualifies as a priest as well. I'm not sure how Brownstein would classify Jimmy Carter.) Then again, as Brownstein notes, Obama's support among blacks—much greater now than when the article originally appeared—changes the dynamics of the campaign. In the past, black voters have tended to reject the upscale priests.
Speaking of blacks, here's Brownstein's conclusion:
Since Obama entered the campaign, the question he's faced most often is whether he is "black enough" to win votes from African Americans. But the more relevant issue may be whether Obama is "blue enough" to increase his support among blue-collar whites.
Now that Obama is polling well among African Americans, people don't talk as much about whether he's "really" black. Am I the only person who thinks that issue always had more to do with his ability to attract white votes than black votes? The nuances in Obama's ethnic identity might put off some black Democrats, but I suspect they also make him seem less threatening to those whites who dislike the idea of racism but still carry prejudices.
This too fits a historical pattern. It's telling that the only other potential black president to receive cross-ideological white support—Colin Powell—comes from Afro-Carribean stock rather than a conventional African-American background. For that matter, before Jesse Jackson spent the '80s as the candidate of the black (and white) left, it was a left-wing Afro-Carribean, Rep. Shirley Chisholm, who made the first serious black bid for a major party's presidential nomination.
Obama is not merely half-white: His black father came from Africa, not the U.S., and Obama himself was partly raised abroad. In other words, he is not primarily a product of black American culture. I don't think that makes him less black, but it probably persuades many whites that he's more "safe." Except, of course, among those voters who believe he's secretly a Muslim. If it's not one anxiety, it's another.