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.”
Kitchen table issues also loom large for these voters. “This is not some Sex and the City group,” said another pollster who studies voting trends among women. “If you are a working-class woman, you are one paycheck or one Social Security check away from financial disaster. The government safety net is so important to you in a profoundly personal way.”
Women with families know that rising gas prices mean higher grocery bills, too, and when a third or more of their income already goes to feeding the family, that’s a whole new level of pain. The economic stress is also stoking other problems that were always there–particularly drug and alcohol addiction and domestic violence. Pollsters say those issues are coming up more often in focus groups with working-class women. More husbands are hitting the kids and beating their wives, and the way many of these husbands resolve their anger is to walk away–for good. And they take their paychecks with them. Food bank directors across the Midwest tell me that’s one of the reasons a growing number of women are showing up for free groceries.
“That’s not something you find out with exit polling,” one pollster said. “That’s what you find out when you put a group of women in a room and tell them you really want to hear what’s happening in their lives.”
For older white working-class women who are married, that talk often turns to the emasculation of the men they love. These are families who were raised with traditional notions of what it means to be a man, and we saw the impact of this upbringing all across Ohio in the 2006 race. Over and over, men who used to work in factories that are now closed spoke, often with choked voices, about how they had failed as husbands and as providers because of lost jobs and reduced wages. Bitterly, they described how their wives, and sometimes their grown children, had to get jobs so the family could survive.
When spoken to separately, the wives were just as emotional–not for themselves but for the men they loved. Women often dabbed their eyes and touched the shoulders of other wives who described the heartbreak of watching their husbands crumble. When it comes to jobs and trade, many of these women wouldn’t care if the next President was bright orange with purple hair if he could bring back the light in their husbands’ eyes.
What does Barack Obama have to say to working-class women? Plenty. But they’re used to being talked at, especially by men. The guy who proves he’s willing to listen and then offer real-life solutions to their all-too-real problems is the guy who will get their votes.
My mother, who was an hourly wage earner until she died, always said to her daughters, “Don’t marry him until you see how he treats the waitress.”
She was talking about picking a husband, but it’s a good test for picking a President, too, and one likely to be used this year by working-class women of every age.