Obama and the new poll, Part 1

For reasons that go much deeper than his appeal, the news in a Post/Kaiser/Harvard poll is mixed for Barack Obama.

Published August 4, 2008 12:48PM (EDT)

A new poll, jointly conducted by the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, shows Barack Obama doing very well among low-wage workers, leading by a roughly 2-to-1 margin. This is not news insofar as those results reflect the attitudes of nonwhite Americans. "Obama's advantage is attributable largely to overwhelming support from two traditional Democratic constituencies: African Americans and Hispanics," write Michael D. Shear and Jon Cohen in the Post.

But what of those long-coveted, supposedly Obama-hating working-class whites? Shear and Cohen: "But even among white workers -- a group of voters that has been targeted by both parties as a key to victory in November -- Obama leads [John] McCain by 10 percentage points, 47 percent to 37 percent, and has the advantage as the more empathetic candidate." Those primary season warnings from analysts and Hillary Clinton supporters that somehow these working-class white voters were going to defect are mostly rubbish.

If all this sounds good for Obama, beware: The news is not uniformly positive. The poll found a high degree of pessimism about the economy, and more specifically the voters' perceived (in)ability of politicians, presumably national politicians, to do much to fix matters. I wouldn't call that pessimism, but realism. The fact is that the U.S. economy is much more interdependent on global trends related to the labor and oil markets. Those low-income voters are not low-information voters: They know that the selling off of the U.S. economy during the past two decades, and the refusal to move toward serious reduction in fossil fuel consumption, have finally -- post-tech market bubble, post-housing market bubble -- caught up with us.

Every four years the Democrats enjoy huge polling advantages on economic issues, and yet Republicans manage to keep their losing margins low. How? Because conservative talking heads worked hard during those same past two decades to reinforce the idea that government can't solve your economic woes and that luck and pluck, not regulation or fiscal policies, are what determine economic fates; then, not coincidentally, Republicans work to destroy government to fulfill this prophecy. That is the disturbing news from these new poll results: A loss of efficacy among Americans who, despite having every reason to be frustrated, show little faith that the politicians and policies chosen by their votes matter.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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