By Marie Cocco
WASHINGTON—Now that Barack Obama has secured the Democratic presidential nomination, I am thinking a lot about Bob Dole. Admittedly, this is one heck of a free association.
It seems impossible for the mind’s eye to conjure up the image of the stodgy, former Senate Republican leader and consummate Washington insider while watching the young, charismatic outsider Obama bring his audiences to an emotional frenzy, as he did on Tuesday night when he clinched the 2008 nomination.
My thoughts turn to Dole not because he and Obama have much in common, though both served in the U.S. Senate and both have Kansas roots. My mind wanders because one of Dole’s most likable qualities was his habit on the campaign trail of closing each and every speech the same way: “I ask for your vote.” This was the punch line to a story Dole would tell about a woman he’d known for years who revealed in a casual conversation that she’d not cast her ballot for him in one of his early campaigns. And why not? Because, the woman told Dole, he didn’t ask.
The question for Obama now is not whether he will ask for the votes of Democrats who failed to support him in the primaries—that is, roughly half the 35 million people who cast ballots. I am assuming he will. The puzzlement is whether he understands that one reason these voters remain so cool to his candidacy is that as yet, he has never really asked for their votes—and at times has been downright dismissive of them.
Since the Iowa caucuses and more strikingly, since the New Hampshire primary, the clarity of Obama’s problem attracting white, working-class voters has been apparent. It glared out from the exit polls before anyone had ever accused Bill and Hillary Clinton of playing racial politics; before the media narrative had taken hold that whites who voted for Clinton did so because of race; before Americans had ever heard about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The pattern was evident long before Obama was caught describing these voters as “bitter,” and therefore clinging to guns, religion and an antipathy to people unlike themselves.
The contours of Obama’s coalition even as the primaries closed—indeed, the foundation of his strategy for securing the nomination—was to stitch together the votes of enough college students and upscale, liberal activists with those of African-Americans to win the prize without the lunch-bucket crowd. This is why caucuses were crucial to building Obama’s delegate tally and why Clinton’s victories in big swing states, particularly in the Rust Belt, would not be enough.
But now Obama confronts this problem: These voters will have the final word on who will be elected president in November. “If you track blue-collar whites basically since 1980, they bounce all over the place,” says Mike Lux, a longtime Democratic strategist who supports Obama. “They’re the biggest swing group in the electorate.”
It is true in congressional elections as well as in presidential years. When voters who lack a college degree—a rough definition of the working class—vote Democratic, Democrats tend to win. When they don’t do so in great enough numbers, Democrats lose.
Obama still does not seem to speak their language, nor, toward the tail end of the primary season, did he seek to speak with them at all. His campaign plane barely touched down in West Virginia and Kentucky, where he ceded both states to Clinton. Why the snub? On Tuesday night, Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, was touting the emergence of a changing Democratic Party chock-full of new voters. But why convey, even inadvertently, such dismissiveness toward the old?
This is the sort of slight Clinton may have had in mind when she riffed on Tuesday night about “what does Hillary want?” One of the items on her list: “I want the nearly 18 million Americans who voted for me to be respected, to be heard and no longer to be invisible.”
Obama’s own election-night speech was beautiful in its cadence, mesmerizing as political theater. Bob Dole, you can be certain, could never have delivered it. Still, the blue-collar and middle-class voters Obama needs to lift him to the White House aren’t much interested in joining a movement. They want their meat-and-potatoes concerns to be met.
Obama now must earn their votes. He also needs to steal Dole’s best line—and finally ask for them.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group