Obama and the working class vote

Issue: 121

Megan Trudell

The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States is tremendous confirmation of the widespread opposition to the wars, racism and economic policies of the Bush administration. The Obama campaign tapped into a deep desire for change among wide sections of the US population and drew large numbers into political engagement, often for the first time. The aspirations that were reflected in support for Obama could form the basis of a movement capable of transforming US politics much more profoundly. One of its most important features is the shift leftwards of millions of working class Americans—white as well as black.

In the aftermath of the second Bush victory in 2004 the commonplace explanation among liberal commentators for the defeat of the Democrat candidate, John Kerry, was that Americans, and especially working class Americans, were moving rightwards. Since the implication was that the election of the Democrats was necessarily in the interests of working Americans while the Republicans favoured the rich, the “logical” explanation for the Bush vote was the hold of right wing ideas over the minds of US workers.

Thomas Frank, in What’s the Matter with Kansas?,1 the book that most clearly expressed this rationalisation of working class support for the Republicans, described a collective cultural “derangement” that led workers to put reactionary ideas such as opposition to gay marriage and abortion, support for gun ownership and religious conviction above their economic interests. This was also the analysis of the Democratic Party, as Obama himself expressed it during the 2008 campaign when he described the reaction of white working class voters in Pennsylvania to 25 years of job losses: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations”.2 In other words, when the going gets tough the working class votes Republican—because of the increasing attraction of “moral” or “cultural” questions.

A recent study paints a more complex picture than Frank’s. Sociologists at the University of Arizona looked at the voting patterns of the 45 percent of Americans who consider themselves working class and, as the New Yorker reported, concluded:

The decline in white working class support for Democrats occurred in one period—from the mid-1970s until the early 1990s, with a brief lull in the early 1980s—and has remained well below 50 percent ever since. But they concluded that social issues like abortion, guns, religion, and even (outside the South) race had little to do with the shift. Instead, according to their data, it was based on a judgment that—during years in which industrial jobs went overseas, unions practically vanished, and working class incomes stagnated—the Democratic Party was no longer much help to them.3

What the Arizona study shows is that it was the lack of a coherent alternative to the conservative Republican message from the Democrats that led to the erosion of working class support for the party. Kerry offered no respite to those at the sharp end of the Bush administration’s economic policies, and therefore there was no real “choice” to be made by working class voters. As the study’s authors write, “Beginning in the mid to late 1970s, there was increasing reason for working class whites to question whether the Democrats were still better than the Republicans at promoting their material wellbeing”.4

Part of Frank’s argument was that economic growth was bypassing broad sections of society and therefore pitting increasingly impoverished rustbelt and farmland Americans against comfortable Democrat college graduates in perpetuity. Economic constraint generated reactionary attitudes and a growing Republican influence over working class areas experiencing industrial and economic decline. This belief was shared by Jeff Madrick who warned, “If American family incomes do not continue to grow, it may be increasingly difficult to mobilise broad support for a government committed to social equity and public investment”.5 Beneath such analyses of workers moving rightwards under economic pressure lay a cynicism about the capacity of “ordinary” Americans to grasp their own interests accurately.

The working class vote

During the course of the 2008 election campaign these predictions of economic selfishness and insularity on the part of working Americans have been proved dramatically wrong. The Obama campaign only began to make serious inroads into the white working class vote following September’s financial meltdown, which suggests that economic pressure acted to push more workers in the direction of Obama and the slogan of “change” than towards the narrow comfort of moral and cultural questions. Indeed the economy was cited as the main issue in the election by 63 percent of those who voted.6 As Mike Davis put it, “In supporting Obama, an unprecedented number of ordinary Americans have made a conscious choice for economic solidarity over racial division”.7

This working class vote did not, however, cleave to Obama from the outset. During the primaries Hillary Clinton claimed most blue collar votes. In May the Independent newspaper carried the headline “White Working Class Vote Still Eludes Obama” as these voters in Indiana and North Carolina—states which the Democrats won in November—withheld their support. Also the Democrats’ share of votes among union members did not increase from the 2004 figure of 61 percent. The likelihood is that many among them remained unconvinced that the Democrats could bring about real change in their lives. Many of the interviews conducted during the campaign among white working class voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia—areas of previous industrial power that are now deeply depressed—recorded workers stating their belief that neither candidate would make any difference to their areas.

For example, one construction worker from north east Pennsylvania, a Democrat who had voted Republican in the past, believed that McCain “hasn’t changed anything in his 30 years [so] he’s not going to change anything now”. But, he added, “I don’t think Obama will either”.8

Across America as a whole, Obama won his biggest share among voters on incomes of $0 to $15,000, $15,000 to $30,000 and $30,000 to $50,000,9 while McCain did best among those earning $100,000 to $150,000 and $150,000-200,000 (see figure 1). The Republican portrayal of themselves as the party of “ordinary Joes” that seemed so successful in 2004 failed to convince in 2008. In October the party “discovered” “Joe the plumber” in Ohio, who protested at Obama’s pledge to revoke tax cuts on incomes over $250,000 because it would hurt small businesses, and made him the party mascot—supposedly representing ordinary Americans.10 However, only 2 percent of the US population makes over a quarter of a million dollars a year, and none of them are plumbers.11

Figure 1: Voting margins by income group
Source: www.pollster.com
Figure 1

How white Americans voted

Overall Obama won 43 percent of the white vote compared to the 41 percent taken by Kerry in 2004. Obama made gains among all the major categories of voters, except those voters aged over 65, who mainly backed McCain. If the figures are broken down by state, Obama’s vote in the Deep South fell compared with Kerry’s—in Alabama from 19 percent to 10 percent, in Louisiana from 24 percent to 14 percent, in Mississippi from 14 percent to 11 percent. This must be largely due to racism. Nonetheless, across the rest of the South—the site of new, non-unionised industries that have drawn in vast numbers of new workers—the Democrat vote was static or went up from its 2004 level among whites. This led the Financial Times to declare, along with the Democrats, the end of the “Southern strategy”—Nixon’s racist appeal to white Southerners to oppose Lyndon B Johnson’s Civil Rights Act in the 1968 election, a strategy which broke Democrat electoral control of the South.12

The Republicans did fare better among self-proclaimed conservatives, veterans and evangelicals, in small towns and among rural communities, which suggests that, to some extent, white Americans continued to prioritise “cultural” issues or refused to vote for Obama out of racism. But compared to four years ago the Democrats increased their vote, however marginally, among voters in all those categories.

The Democrats won, or won back, Indiana, Ohio and Virginia as well as North Carolina, Nevada, Colorado, Montana and Florida. Crucial to the victory in those states were Hispanic voters, often registering and voting for the first time, who overturned the Republicans in what was an electoral expression of the political movement that saw mass demonstrations across the US in May 2006—a movement that also raised the slogan “Yes, we can!” that was taken up by the Obama campaign.

The number of Hispanic voters has increased enormously since the previous election—from 9.5 million in 2004 to 13 million this year.13 While Bush captured 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, his anti_immigrant measures in 2006 and the resistance they inspired saw that percentage slashed to 31 percent for McCain. However, support for the Democrats among Hispanic voters was not only in response to anti-immigrant racism; it was also a reaction against Bush’s economic policies. The deputy director of Voto Latino describes how “Latinos have borne the brunt of the economic downturn. Many work in construction, and when that industry came to a halt, they were all affected. A lot of people who were not politically engaged went to the polls this time”.14

What next?

Crucially the changes in voting patterns seen in this election have been matched by an inspirational campaigning movement that has mobilised millions. That movement, itself born of the deep anger and bitterness at eight years of war, economic onslaught and hardship, and official racism ranging from the Bush government’s savage response to Hurricane Katrina to McCain’s desperate anti-immigrant language, can form part of a broader and more organised resistance to American capitalism.

It is a movement that the white working class in the US is not politically or culturally cut off from as the shifts in voting attitudes from 2004 show. The election results would appear to confirm the analysis made in this journal in 2006 that “cultural” factors have a more transient hold on workers’ consciousness than might be apparent and that the prospects—or hope—of real change in their lives can, and do, outweigh factors like religion, moral attitudes and race.15

The Obama presidency will be under pressure from the top and the bottom. The huge vote for the Democrats among the richest in the US and, as importantly, their vast campaign contributions, will inevitably lead to a clash with the expectations of the poor and working class Americans who were key to the Obama victory. The Wall Street bankers who gave enormous sums to the campaign—for example, the $847,207 from Goldman Sachs employees, $581,460 from JP Morgan and $581,216 donated from Citigroup staff16—will want to be included in the discussions on the future of the banking industry and will want to temper potential losses. The big corporate backers will want rescue deals and bailouts, while working class voters will have high expectations that this government will defend their living standards in the face of economic disaster and bring about genuine reforms to save jobs and provide healthcare. The Democratic Party is not, however, a social democratic party with the connections to the organised working class of reformist parties in Europe—however similar the expectations of it may sometimes be. It is the second party of US capitalism and, as such, will only challenge the US ruling class and prioritise reform if significant force from below impels it to do so.

In the absence of such a movement, and in the midst of profound recession or even depression, the hopes placed in Obama by working class Americans seem destined to be disappointed. The appointments of Tim Geithner, head of the New York Reserve Bank to the treasury, with mentor Larry Summers (Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary) as economic adviser and the pro Iraq war Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, together with the retention of Robert Gates as defence secretary, would suggest that change will be more rhetorical than real in the Obama White House. However, there are other factors that will make maintaining the upper hand more complicated for the US ruling class. Its continued economic and imperial dominance is under threat. The recent National Intelligence Council review states, “Although the United States is likely to remain the single most powerful actor, the United States’ relative strength—even in the military realm—will decline and US leverage will become more constrained”.17

Cracks in the monolith of US ruling class power can create space for a movement from below that can force change to emerge. During the 1930s the reforms of the Roosevelt presidency were, at root, the product of an explosion of massive strikes and a sit-down movement that radicalised millions. The 2000s are not the 1930s, and the crisis will look very different this time around; the US working class has been systematically attacked for over 30 years and has a lot of ground to make up if it is to become a serious force once more. Nonetheless there are hopeful signs.

The US working class is changing and millions of new workers have been drawn into the political process. The Hispanic vote is a good example. Its shift from Republican to Democrat since 2004 is a product of the self-organised movement against the Bush government in 2006. The hold of reactionary ideas on the white working class has been shown to be not negligible but at least fragile and, increasingly, economic hardship can cut across and undermine the racial divisions that have held back collective struggle since the 1960s. Factors like these do not guarantee collective resistance to the crisis but will contribute to the ability of any such movement to embrace the widest possible numbers.

The possibility of pushing the Obama presidency to deliver on a fraction of the hopes vested in him will depend on mobilising such a movement from below that can resist the attempts of his big business backers to make the poorest pay for the crisis. The task facing the US left is how to connect with and deepen the roots of the networks that the Obama campaign has inspired. Winning genuine reform in the current economic climate, however, will ultimately require the independence of such a movement from Obama and the Democrats.


1: Frank, 2004.

2: Quoted in the Chicago Sun Times, 2 April 2008.

3: Packer, 2008.

4: Quoted in Packer, 2008.

5: Madrick, 2006.

6: Pew Research Center, www.pewresearch.org

7: Davis, 2008.

8: “Working Class White Voters Are Ditching McCain”, the Huffington Post, 15 November 2008.

9: To put these figures in context, the average pay for a social worker is around $40,000, for a factory worker around $30,000. See the Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://data.bls.gov/

10: The Guardian, 4 November 2008.

11: The McCain campaign’s attempt to rally to the rich failed. One striking aspect of Obama’s vote is that the Democrats won more than half (52 percent) of those voters earning more than $200,000, while 46 percent supported McCain. Four years ago John Kerry won only 35 percent of voters in the highest income bracket. See www.pewresearch.org

12: Financial Times, 5 November 2008.

13: Financial Times, 7 November 2008.

14: Financial Times, 7 November 2008.

15: Trudell, 2006.

16: The Guardian, 7 November 2008.

17: The National Intelligence Council, “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World”,


Davis, Mike, 2008, “The New Deal?”, Socialist Review (November 2008), www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=10589

Frank, Thomas, 2004, What’s the matter with Kansas? (Metropolitan).

Madrick, Jeff, 2006, “The Way to a Fair Deal”, New York Review of Books, volume 53, number 1, 12 January 2006.

Packer, George, 2008, “The Hardest Vote”, the New Yorker, 13 October 2008.

Trudell, Megan, 2006, “The Hidden History of US Radicalism’, International Socialism 111 (summer 2006), www.isj.org.uk/?id=216