Now that Hillary Clinton is out of the presidential race, the hand-wringing has begun over what will happen to all those working-class women who supported her.
First, let’s ask the right question. Which working-class women do we mean?
Those of us who come from these homes, these neighborhoods, have always known what pollsters are finding out: blue-collar women are not a monolithic group. They proved this in the primary election and will likely demonstrate it again in November. Whether this is good news or bad for Barack Obama depends on whether he can convince a lot of older white women living paycheck to paycheck that he’s the guy who understands why they’re so scared–and is the one who can do something about it.
As with virtually every other demographic group except African-Americans, who voted overwhelmingly for him, the support for Obama’s candidacy among white working-class women fell along generational lines. Exit polls indicate that the majority of younger blue-collar voters were for him. Older white women went for Hillary, but that doesn’t mean they will automatically vote for the Democrat in the fall. They supported Hillary in large part because she did not push too hard against their comfort zone. She looked like them and, often, sounded like them, particularly when she talked about single mothers without healthcare and waitresses working two and three shifts just to get by.
They don’t feel respected, and so attacks against Clinton resonated for a lot of them. These are women who take care of their kids, their husbands and their parents and stretch household budgets from thin to translucent, but as soon as their breasts start to droop and their tummies poof out they go from sex objects to invisible. From their perspective, they’ve worked harder than anybody had the right to expect and now nobody has any use for them. But Hillary Clinton? Now, there was a postmenopausal woman who refused to disappear.
For a lot of these women, Obama is a challenge. They may be comfortable with his policy agenda, but he is one odd duck in their pond. Much of that has to do with age. Theirs, not his. Which means it’s really about race.
As one pollster who has made a career of studying working-class voters told me, “It really boils down to when you graduated from high school, whether you graduated before or after 1971. The question is, Did you go to an integrated high school? After 1971, the answer is likely yes, which is why so many young voters say, We’re not uptight about race. But here’s what you hear from older voters in focus groups all the time. They’ll say, I go back to my high school now and it’s all black. That usually means about a third are black, but these people went to high school when everybody was white. To them, everything has changed.”