As the U.S. Economy Sputters, Working-Class Women Shift to Obama
By JONATHAN KAUFMAN
KOKOMO, Ind. -- Last month, in this once-sturdy auto town of 60,000, two white women sounded off at a union hall when talk turned to politics.
"I feel like a white female or a white male has fewer opportunities than the black man or the black woman because of all the special treatment and special programs they have gotten," said Marla Hightower. "If Obama is elected, what's going to happen?"
"That is just stupid," Ginny McMillin, the head of her local, shot back. "People are saying 'we don't want a black man.' Shame on America for thinking that!"
[Women for Obama] Getty Images
Obama supporters pose during a "Women's Rally For The Change We Need" in Florida in September.
The exchange was emblematic of the sharp divide among white, working-class female voters -- a key voting bloc that has largely rejected Barack Obama as a presidential candidate. But four weeks and a $700 billion financial-bailout package later, some attitudes are shifting. Sen. Obama is now picking up support from some of the very women who until recently disdained him. As U.S. economic concerns intensify, ranks of blue-collar females are reconsidering everything from Sen. Obama's policies to their comfort level with his race.
Working-class women, generally defined as those in blue-collar and service jobs earning less than $50,000 a year -- comprise almost a quarter of American voters. Sen. Obama trailed Sen. John McCain by 12 points among these women just two weeks ago, but has since closed the gap. According to a Wall Street Journal poll conducted the weekend of Oct. 4, the two senators are now running even, with 45% of such voters giving each candidate the nod. The reversal is one of the main reasons Sen. Obama is gaining ground in swing states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Indiana -- all of which have large rural and blue-collar populations.
Ms. Hightower, who lost her auto-factory job two years ago in a wave of forced retirements, is one of the recent converts. Having watched the financial crisis unfold and the stock market plummet, she now says she plans to cast her vote for the Illinois senator. "I am not 100% crazy about Obama," says the 55-year-old with a sigh. "He kind of scares me. But I think he will do better for the middle class." In particular, she likes Sen. Obama's conviction to keep more jobs in the U.S.
Petra Jameson, a black Obama supporter, says she's noticed similar changes taking place at Kokomo's two big auto plants. Just a few weeks ago, "when we had some people come around to ask workers to vote for Obama they were told 'I am not voting for that N-word.' People said that." At the time, union organizers who support Sen. Obama were stunned by how many working-class women even refused to take literature with his picture on it. But now, says Ms. Jameson, 35 years old, some people are turning. "They are losing money [in their retirement accounts] daily. They may have to get over race."
Kokomo is a city with a checkered racial and economic history. It was a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1920s and rippled with racial tension in the 1960s, residents say. About 10% of Kokomo's population today is African-American. Anchored by sprawling Delphi and Chrysler factories, the city has more recently been hit hard by layoffs triggered by the troubles of the auto industry. The area's jobless rate, at around 8%, is the highest in the state. In August, the Delphi plant announced it would let go another 300 workers.
Thousands of people here have been pushed into early retirement. Many women in and around Kokomo once held jobs at the Delphi auto-parts plant and other factories that paid $20 to $30 an hour with generous benefits. Replacement gigs, often in the service sector, tend to pay about half that.
Last week, Angela Lorenz, 58 years old, met with a stock broker to discuss her 401(k) which had been free-falling in value. Two years ago, she lost her position at a local utility company where she earned $24 an hour. These days, she and her husband, a former union auto worker, each make $9.25 an hour cleaning offices in a hospital building.
Growing up in the Kokomo area, Ms. Lorenz recalls occasional clashes with African-Americans at work. Parking her car near black neighborhoods made her fearful about crime. Eventually, she says, she came to know and befriend blacks at her job.
She voted for President Bush in 2004 but this time she is still undecided. "I want whoever is going to help the country get through this," says Ms. Lorenz, who has decided to stay put in the stock market for now. "I think Obama could represent me. He does understand the problems for older people. He was close to his grandparents. He is aware of what can happen to people if they don't have someone to look after them."
In the latest Wall Street Journal poll, blue-collar women indicated they are more worried about their personal financial future than blue-collar men. About 62% of these women expressed concern about their personal financial future over the next year compared to just 23% who were more optimistic. Working-class men, while worried, show a bit more confidence, with 57% saying they are pessimistic about their own financial future versus 39% who are optimistic.
Such differences may help to explain why working-class women have frequently shown a tendency to break with their husbands, brothers and fathers in the voting booth. (White working-class men still overwhelmingly back Sen. McCain by 58% to 34%, support that hasn't changed much since the financial crisis began.) In recent years, blue-collar women have been more open to Democratic economic messages, analysts say, and less swayed by social issues than their male counterparts. In 2004, President Bush defeated John Kerry overwhelmingly among blue-collar men but won blue-collar women by just one point. In 2000, President Bush trounced Al Gore among blue-collar men but won blue-collar women by just three points.
For this election, some analysts see heightened economic tensions overcoming any racial prejudices or hang-ups. "Women are much more sensitive to kitchen-table issues -- they are usually responsible for balancing family budgets," says Katherine Newman, a Princeton sociologist who studies the working class. "Racism is what you indulge in if everything else is in order and you can let your prejudices hold sway. If your family is in trouble you can't afford it."
Kenlyn Watson, the white owner of a beauty salon here called the Mane Attraction, was certain four weeks ago that she would vote for Sen. McCain. Among other things, she was suspicious that a President Obama "would try to right the injustices of 200 years against the black man in four years." Now, the 50-year-old says she is "on the fence" and seriously considering voting for Sen. Obama.
"I am concerned when McCain says the 'fundamentals of the economy are sound' and then 24 hours later we are going down the crapper," she says. "I have friends who are planning on shutting down their stores in 30 days if things don't get better. I may not agree with all of Obama's policies but maybe we need change."
In an effort to win back working-class women, the McCain campaign is emphasizing tax cuts and economic policies that it says will create jobs and help ease the financial crisis. Sen. McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin have stepped up criticism of Sen. Obama's past associations, hammering away at the idea that Sen. Obama is an out-of-touch elitist while Sen. McCain and his running mate are populists on the side of workers.
Gov. Palin has energized many working-class women here because they see themselves in her -- a woman, who, like them, is assertive, juggles work and family, and rejects many of the traditional liberal views of the women's movement.
Chatting with a group of women in a downtown Kokomo café, 72-year-old Jody Hollis, a retired auto worker, recently took out a sheaf of papers with pictures of Gov. Palin downloaded from the Internet. "Look, girls: Her with the national guard, her killing a moose, holding a fish. Look! She's a macho woman and man at the same time."
But support for Gov. Palin is also fading among working-class women. A month ago, 47% of blue-collar women said the Alaska governor was qualified to be president while 40% said she was not. Now those numbers have reversed: 43% of white working-class women in this past weekend's Journal poll say Gov. Palin is qualified to be president; 48% say she isn't ready.
The campaign is still volatile and the preferences of white working-class women, like other segments of the electorate, could continue to shift. Race has emerged as an explosive topic several times -- most notably regarding Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Sen. Obama's former controversial Chicago pastor who made inflammatory statements attacking American policies. Analysts and advisers in both campaigns expect such issues to surface again.
"The idea that in a time like this there is no time for racism is a nice thought but I don't think things will necessarily pan out that way," says Jay Campbell, vice president of Hart research, which conducts the Wall Street Journal poll. "What we have seen over the past twenty years in politics is that a lot of people don't end up voting their own economic self-interest, but they vote on a values level."
About half of white working-class women -- 51% -- say they don't identify with Sen. Obama's "background" and "values" while 42% say they do, according to a Journal poll last month. By contrast, 60% say they identify with Sen. McCain's values, while 34% say they do not.
The Obama campaign is stressing tax cuts and broader health care coverage in addition to traditional women's issues like pay equity and the senator's pro-choice stance on abortion. It is also deploying Michelle Obama around the country to meet with working women and talk about their concerns. Mrs. Obama recently traveled to a suburb of Indianapolis, about an hour south of here, to address female voters. "That is why I am out here -- to convince people that Barack does get it," Mrs. Obama told the crowd.
Last week, Ms. Jameson says she was in a Costco store with her son who was wearing an Obama T-shirt. A white woman came up to them, Mrs. Jameson recalls, and said, "I hope he wins. I am a lifelong Republican but things have to change."
Write to Jonathan Kaufman at email@example.com
Copyright 2008 Dow Jones & Company,
Get Your Barack
Obama "A Legacy Of Hope" T-Shirt Today!!!