I write this "open letter" to Barack Obama because I am concerned about one recently written by Harold Ford, Jr. That letter urged Obama to try harder to connect with White blue-collar voters by engaging them in states like Kentucky and Indiana in the fall elections. And while I would not argue that he should ignore these states, I worry that the agenda he would use to attract conservative voters could weaken the force of change.
To begin with, worry about the blue collar vote is based on the perception of their strength as a part of the Democratic base, but this year will probably not reflect the 1980s when they went over to the Republican party en masse or in 1992 when they were a large part of the Ross Perot vote. This year, blue collar Whites are hurting more than any other time in recent memory and more than any other part of the political demographic with: significant job losses, high prices for everything from milk to gas, the loss of their homes and disaffection with the war policies of the Bush administration.
They have been let down by Republicans on both domestic and foreign policy. This year the blue collar constituency is likely to split. One group could go with McCain; another group may buy in to Obama's promise of change to an agenda that favors lower-income citizens; and still another group, frustrated by the choices, is likely to stay home.
There is the distinct possibility that a great deal of the loss of blue collar Whites could be made up by the new coalition that Obama promises to bring into the Fall election. Estimates by the Associated Press indicate that Democrats have attracted 3.5 to 4 million new voters in the primaries. If this proportion holds up in the fall elections, one would have to triple the number of new voters to about 10-12 million. This substantial number of change voters should be the focus of the campaign rather than lavishing resources on voters in the conservative heartland of the nation that will most likely not vote for Barack Obama in any case.
The other path to increasing the change constituency is to focus on enhancing the turnout of those groups that have shown they are more likely to vote for a Democratic ticket, Blacks and Hispanics.
To be sure, some of the increase in new primary election voters is reflected in the increase in Blacks and Hispanics, but more could be done in the general election to increase these numbers, especially among the youth, who are turning away from the Republican Party in astounding numbers. In 2004, 35 percent of Blacks and 66 percent of Hispanics were not registered and 44 percent of Blacks and 72 percent of Hispanics that were eligible did not vote. The addition of new voters to the Democratic base should put into perspective much of the speculation about Hillary Clinton's strength in so-called swing states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania by considering the new states such voters might deliver.
Finally, some of Obama's perceived weaknesses are based on head-to-head polls during the primary season, but the tradition is that these numbers do not necessarily hold up in the fall. For example, in 1998 Michael Dukakis was ahead of George H. W. Bush but Bush won; in 1992 Bill Clinton trailed Bush in the Primary elections but Clinton won; and in 2000 Al Gore was ahead of George Bush but Bush was given the election.
Therefore, the moderate wing of the Democratic party and the punditry that seems obsessed with blue collar voters should not dictate to the Obama campaign a strategy that both feeds into Obama's weakness among blue collar Whites and challenges the strength of a change-oriented campaign and administration if he wins the presidency.
Such a strategy is disrespectful of Blacks by suggesting that they would stand still while Obama pursues conservative interests to their detriment, in effect, exchanging the progressive substance of change for race.
I think this is a dangerous course the Obama campaign should avoid.
Ron Walters is director of the African American Leadership Center.