Full Disclosure

Full Disclosure: I remain undecided, but this has got to be the best most interesting political theater I’ve witnessed in my (admittedly short) lifetime.

I’ll start with a topic I’ve found incredibly frustrating of late: Obama’s uneasy relationship with white, working-class voters. Despite reasonably high favorability ratings, the candidate’s difficulty connecting with lower-income constituents has been a much-discussed feature of the electoral season. The “beer-track/wine-track” divide quickly became the dominant media narrative of the Democratic primary, and Palin’s middle-class “hockey mom” persona has revived and amplified the notion that Obama is incapable of connecting with downscale whites.

Yet more disclosure: I’m white, but I’m not (by any stretch of the imagination) working class. I’ve mowed a few lawns and worked construction for a summer, but despite my best efforts, I can’t imagine what my political priorities would look like if I was suddenly transformed into a blue-collar Average Joe.

I do know how I make my own political choices, however, and the process is a lot less rational than I’d care to admit. I’m an undecided voter, but to me, Obama’s public persona is viscerally attractive. He comes off as thoughtful, cerebral, and nuanced. As a self-described “intellectual,” these are qualities I aspire to. McCain’s “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” approach also has its charms, but I don’t identify with his life story on a personal level. So despite all my protestations of neutrality, at the end of the day I’m probably rooting for Obama over McCain (even if I end up voting for neither candidate).

I suspect that working class voters’ approach to presidential elections is also more visceral than rational. Few blue collar whites can identify with Obama’s personal story. His policy positions may be attractive, but his personality leaves them cold. Conservative pundits laud McCain’s superior “character,” but voters’ unease with Obama reflects something deeper than McCain’s impressive life story (Remember how quickly McCain’s vaunted “Biography Tour” was forgotten?).

The most politically successful presidents of the last three decades – Reagan, Clinton, and now Bush – were all famous for developing a personal connection with voters. Clinton’s “I feel your pain” line has been widely caricatured, but as an electoral strategy it was solid gold. Bush may be a lame duck, but in 2004 he won a tightly-contested bid for reelection by essentially ignoring concerns over Iraq and the economy while convincing voters he could be trusted. Obama has captured the affection of some demographic blocs – most notably white yuppies and African-Americans – but this hasn’t translated into broader electoral success.  And now he’s faced with a candidate whose visceral appeal may trump his own “celebrity” among a larger segment of public opinion. Gulp . . .


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