The populist themes are meant to appeal to a demographic that political analysts rarely spend much time talking about and that both candidates need in the tight race to clinch the Democratic nomination--white men, who make up 36 to 39 percent of the electorate.
"They are both going after the Edwards vote--white, male, blue collar--and there are a lot of them in Ohio," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "If Obama wants to come close or win Ohio, he's going to have to be successful with white men."
And recently, the Illinois senator has been. While Clinton held the white male vote in many of the earlier Democratic primaries, Obama carried it in Virginia, the one Potomac primary state that Clinton had the best shot at winning. Obama received an even higher percentage of white male voters in Wisconsin, where 63 percent selected the Illinois senator to 34 percent who chose Clinton. And he won both states.
Despite the current focus on the primaries, there's a larger elephant in the room, so to speak: The Democratic Party struggles with attracting white male voters.
In politics, the "gender gap" is commonly used to refer to women voting Democratic. The flip side of this is that men--white men, to be more specific--vote Republican. But this wasn't always the case. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, blue-collar white men were a part of his New Deal coalition. But in the 1960s, Democrats embraced the civil rights movement and targeted black and female voters. At the same time, explains David Paul Kuhn, author of The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma, white men played the role of the scapegoat and were deemed racist and sexist. "The Democratic Party saw white men for their worst vice and none of their virtue," Kuhn says. By 1980, white men were easily being wooed by Ronald Reagan and the Republicans, and many Democratic men transformed into the "Reagan Democrats."
The explanation for their desertion of the Democratic Party has often been boiled down to stereotypes: White men are simply racist or sexist. "It just felt right [to say] that they left for all the wrong reasons," explains Kuhn. But Kuhn says there are other, more complicated reasons that white men left the Democratic Party. "Considering when the divorce occurred, it wasn't all their fault. They weren't all racist, sexist, misogynist pigs," Kuhn says. "It was sort of the 1970s new man against the 1950s classical man....these men had real reasons to ditch the Democratic Party." But that's not to say that gender and race didn't and don't play a role. By the time the Vietnam War was ending, men didn't feel as comfortable with the cultural and social liberalism of the Democrats, adds senior fellow Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute.
In 1980, Reagan won 61 percent of the white male vote, and Democrats haven't won a majority since. In recent years, white male voters went lopsidedly for Republican George W. Bush. In 2004, Bush received 61 percent to John Kerry's 38 percent, and in 2000, Bush received 61.7 percent to Al Gore's 35.2 percent. Had Kerry carried about an additional 5 percent of white men, he would have been running for re-election right now.
This time around, John McCain poses a formidable challenge for Democrats trying to woo white male voters away from the Republican Party. "The almost certain Republican nominee, Senator McCain, is someone whose life story is intrinsically appealing to a significant swath ofwhite men who can identify with his narrative and also with the virtues and ideals that he embodies," William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says. "At the same time, it is now certain that the Democratic Party will nominate someone who is not a white male for the first time in its history, and that raises the obvious questions."
"How many white men will declare in public that race and gender make no difference but behave differently in private?" Galston suggests. Obama or Clinton would labor under a burden of proof with this group, Galston says. But if white men begin to have second thoughts about the war or are not experiencing any gains from the economy, they might decide it's time for a Democrat. On the other hand, the Republican Party doesn't even necessarily need to tout the male-white-voter-friendly biography of McCain because that's just who he is, says Bowman of AEI. "In the end, I think men will be more drawn to McCain than Obama just because of his strong profile, but it's premature."
Although there are significant benefits to winning the white male vote, many within the Democratic Party find it difficult to devise a strategy around or even talk about the white male vote, says David "Mudcat" Saunders, who has been a senior strategist for Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, Sen. Jim Webb, and John Edwards.
"It is a naughty word," Saunders says. "I can't tell you the number of meetings I've been in with Democratic political operatives and workers and start talking about the white vote...you'll see people looking at each other...'Jesus, what is this guy talking about?' "
But Saunders, a white Virginian and self-proclaimed hillbilly, has talked about it and targeted white men successfully in the campaigns he's worked on in the South. "The Reagan Democrats are looking for a place to go. They want to come home," says Saunders. "Are we going to invite them? That's the question."
In the past when he worked for Warner, he got the candidate's name displayed on a NASCAR racecar and urged bluegrass great Dr. Ralph Stanley to endorse the Virginian gubernatorial candidate. He also did the unheard of by sponsoring a hunting and fishing show that drew 7,000 people over two days, effectively playing down the Democrats' gun control stance. "Inside every Republican rural white male, there's a Democrat trying to get out," says Saunders. "We just don't go after them." Saunders says it's simply a matter of respecting rural culture and actually campaigning in those areas.
Without a nominee, it's too early to tell exactly how the Democrats plan to attract white men and make inroads in the "white male gap." But if Edwards's spirit begins to creep into the nominee's speeches or if the nominee speaks of jobs more and guns less, it's for the support of the white guy. And if the Democrats make an effort to target white men by focusing on issues important to them, Saunders thinks they will have a good chance of winning the White House.
"You know what happens when candidates target white males?" Saunders asks. "They win."
By Nikki Schwab