Obama's Momentum Runs Into Speed Bump of `Archie Bunker' Voters
March 6 (Bloomberg) -- Barack Obama is having trouble with Archie Bunker.
The white, blue-collar voters personified by the 1970s fictional television character cost Obama this week. His Democratic presidential rival, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, beat him 54 percent to 44 percent in industrial Ohio, and 58 percent to 40 percent in predominantly white Rhode Island.
In Ohio's 10th district of Cuyahoga County, a suburban enclave on Cleveland's west side that includes a large population of Polish-Americans, Clinton trounced Obama 61 percent to 37 percent, according to exit polls. In the state's Belmont County, an economically depressed Appalachian border area that is predominantly white, she had a 50-point lead over Obama, the first black candidate to have a shot at the White House.
``Race played a significant factor in Ohio,'' said Cuyahoga County Commissioner Timothy Hagan, who supported Obama. The state's white voters aren't ``bigots, but the image they see every day of black America is drugs, crime, guns and violence.''
Clinton's March 4 victories in contests in Texas, Rhode Island and Ohio -- and just one defeat, in Vermont -- pumped new life into her candidacy after 11 consecutive losses to Obama. She now has renewed momentum heading into the next big test on April 22 in Pennsylvania, where the electorate looks much like Ohio's.
The weak showing among the white working class in Ohio and Rhode Island reflects a larger vulnerability for Obama, said Joe Trippi, a former senior strategist for John Edwards, who had broad appeal among those voters until he dropped out of the Democratic race last month.
Obama, 46, has ``had a problem with lower-income, downscale, blue-collar Democrats from the beginning,'' Trippi said. ``He typically appeals to better educated, upscale Democrats.''
Ohio exit polls show white Democrats voted for Clinton 70 percent to 27 percent, while black Democrats voted for Obama 88 percent to 12 percent. In Rhode Island, white Democrats voted for Clinton 67 percent to 32 percent. Blacks accounted for just 6 percent of the vote.
Clinton beat Obama 58 to 40 percent among those with no college degree and 56 percent to 42 percent among those who earn less than $50,000 a year in Ohio. In Rhode Island, she won those with no college degree 61 percent to 38 percent, and those earning less than $50,000 by 59 percent to 39 percent.
Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, said he doesn't think race would hurt Obama in a general election because the Illinois senator has done well in other states with large white working-class populations.
``That's a false argument,'' he said.
Obama is still the Democratic front-runner and has shown strength attracting independents and younger voters. While this week's results were welcome in the Clinton camp, she barely cut into Obama's overall lead of about 150 pledged delegates.
In addition, the next states to hold contests, Wyoming and Mississippi, are likely to increase his margin. Wyoming on March 8 holds a caucus, a type of contest in which Obama has generally prevailed. Mississippi, which holds a primary on March 11, has a heavy concentration of black voters. Neither state has big populations of white ethnic voters.
Yet Obama will need to do better with the white ethnic working class in places like Pennsylvania and to build a majority in a general election if he is the nominee.
The challenges he faces with these groups are evident in his hometown of Chicago, where voters know him and he is popular. Still, he faces resistance in working-class, white ethnic neighborhoods.
``I can't support him,'' said Richard Dorsch, a 53-year-old paramedic fire chief from Chicago's Edison Park. Dorsch, who said his kids liken him to Archie Bunker, voted for Clinton in the primary, though he plans to support Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona if Obama wins the nomination.
``When he talks to you, it's like he's talking down to you,'' Dorsch said. ``He doesn't have the experience to talk like that.''
Dorsch's 41st Ward, which gave Clinton, 60, a six- percentage-point advantage, is 90 percent white, dominated by German, Polish and Irish ethnic police officers, teachers and city workers.
Obama has had problems with similar types of voters in Chicago since he began running for public office, though he has made some progress. He beat his white Democratic rivals in the 2004 Senate primary in places like the 41st Ward.
Yet communities like Edison Park remain a challenge for Obama, said Kent Redfield, a professor of political studies at the University of Illinois in Springfield.
``When Democrats win national elections they really do put that old New Deal coalition back together,'' he said. ``They have to get that Reagan Democrat.''
Chicago's 41st Ward is a classic white working-class neighborhood of bungalows, modest two-flats and Dutch colonials that shuts down on Pulaski Day, the March holiday celebrating Casimir Pulaski, a Pole who fought in the Revolutionary War.
An informal survey of employees at a local bank, gym, library, and neighborhood restaurant turned up no Obama supporters. Some residents said they were concerned that he might not take into account the concerns of whites.
``If Obama gets in, it's going to be a black thing and it's going to be all blacks for blacks,'' said Victoria Mikulski, a 63-year-old clerk in Edison Park. ``Everything's got to be equal.''
Some residents still harbor resentment from 35 years ago, when a growing black population on the city's west side pushed whites north into Edison Park and Norwood Park, said Mary O'Connor, who owns a local bakery. Brian Doherty, the 41st Ward alderman, said he was ``shocked'' by Obama's success in the 2004 Senate primary.
O'Connor, a Democrat who voted for Obama and recently won a seat as ward councilwoman, said a new generation that is less concerned with racial politics and history is taking over.
Far more important are the Iraq War and the economy, said O'Connor, who met with many residents during her door-to-door campaign this year.
Some younger voters said they are turned off by the race.
``It's a gender and race war; that's why I'm just not interested in it,'' said Nicholas Georgopoulos, a 27-year-old auto technician and Democrat who lives in Norwood Park. ``They're not concentrating on the right things,'' he said. Dorsch, the fire paramedic, said race isn't a factor in his vote.
The importance of white, working-class neighborhoods like the 41st isn't lost on Obama. When in late 2003 the then Illinois state senator was considering a run for the U.S. Senate, he invited Senate colleague and close friend Larry Walsh for breakfast in Springfield.
Walsh represented Joliet, a majority white rural community south of Chicago.
``He said, `if I cannot appeal to the constituency that you represent, how am I going to ever think about winning statewide?''' said Walsh, who is now Will County executive.