Obama: Face to face with white America

If Barack Obama is to realise his dream, he doesn’t just need to win – he needs to win big. In the first part of a special report, Matt Bai joins him on a make-or-break campaign marathon through the working-class heartlands of the Appalachians
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The Independent Online

For a guy who just four years ago was running his first statewide campaign, Barack Obama has made startlingly few missteps as a presidential candidate. But the moment Obama would most like to take back now, if he could, was the one last April when, speaking to a small gathering of San Francisco contributors, he said small-town voters in Pennsylvania and other states had grown "bitter" over lost jobs, which caused them to "cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them".

That comment, later posted by a blogger for the Huffington Post, undercut a central premises of Obama's campaign, an argument he first floated in his famous 2004 address to the Democratic Convention – that he could somehow erode the tired distinctions between red (Republican) and blue (Democrat) states and appeal to disaffected white men who had written off national Democrats as hopelessly elitist. Instead, in the weeks that followed, white working-class primary voters, not only in industrial states like Pennsylvania but also in rural states like Kentucky and West Virginia, rejected his candidacy by wide margins, and he staggered, wounded, toward the nomination.

"That was my biggest bone-headed move," Obama told me. We were sitting across from each other on his plane, the one with the big red, white and blue "O" on the tail, flying above Nebraska. "How it was interpreted in the press was Obama talking to a bunch of wine-sipping San Francisco liberals with an anthropological view toward white working-class voters. And I was actually making the reverse point, clumsily, which is that these voters have a right to be frustrated because they've been ignored. And because Democrats haven't met them halfway on cultural issues, we've not been able to communicate to them effectively an economic agenda that would help broaden our coalition."

Obama was wearing his classic starched white shirt, with a tie the colour of a robin's egg. One on one, he has a crisp and effortless conversational style; his answers are thoughtful, but you rarely glimpse the thought process itself, the internal calibrations that every politician is constantly making. The only outward sign that Obama is labouring over his formulations is the way he will often elongate the word "and" for several seconds, a processing hitch that enables him to preview in his own head what he is about to tell you.

"I mean, part of what I was trying to say to that group in San Francisco was, 'You guys need to stop thinking that issues like religion or guns are somehow wrong,'" he continued. "Because, in fact, if you've grown up and your dad went out and took you hunting, and that is part of your self-identity and provides you a sense of continuity and stability that is unavailable in your economic life, then that's going to be pretty important, and rightfully so. And if you're watching your community lose population and collapse but your church is still strong and the life of the community is centred around that, well then, you know, we'd better be paying attention to that."

In a few minutes, Obama would arrive in Colorado for a campaign stop, followed by another in Nevada – two critical states that neither of the previous two Democratic nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry, came all that close to winning, largely because of their abject failure to connect with white men, especially lower- and middle-class men in rural and exurban counties. A few weeks earlier, I watched Obama campaign in the coal country of Appalachian Virginia, where no one I talked to could remember ever seeing a Democratic nominee come through town.

I asked Obama how he thought he could convey to these voters that he was not, in fact, an anthropological observer of the culture. Four years ago, Kerry, a man who was once actually pretty comfortable holding a semi-automatic weapon, donned his hunting gear and traipsed into the woods of Ohio, trailed by cameras, to shoot some geese. The stunt made him look absurd.

"First," Obama said, "you have to show up. I've been to Elko, Nevada, now three times."

"Elko?" I asked twice, straining to hear him over the engine noise.

"E-L-K-O." He sounded vaguely annoyed, as if I had just confirmed something about the media he had long suspected. "That, by the way, is the reason we got more delegates out of Nevada, even though we lost the popular vote there during the primary. We lost Las Vegas and Clark County, but we won handily in rural Nevada. And a lot of it just had to do with the fact that folks thought: Man, the guy is showing up. He's set up an office. He's doing real organising. He's talking to people.

"Number two is how we talk about issues. To act like hunting, like somebody who wants firearms just doesn't get it – that kind of condescension has to be purged from our vocabulary. And that's why that whole 'bittergate' episode was so bitter for me. It was like: Oh, this is exactly what I wanted to avoid. This is what for the last five or six years I've been trying to push away from."

As we talked, consequential events were reshaping the world below. At that very moment, Republicans in Washington were scuttling a $700bn emergency plan for Wall Street, causing the markets to haemorrhage more value in a single day, in terms of sheer dollar amounts, than at any time in American history and dragging the economy back into the centre of the campaign – precisely where John McCain and the Republicans didn't want it. And yet, what Obama and I were discussing, this cultural disconnect between Democrats and large swaths of white men, remained a lingering and crucial question. It now appeared that the only thing that could still threaten Obama's march to the presidency was the same resistance from these voters that had, at the last moment, dashed the dreams of both his Democratic predecessors. Gore and Kerry tried, somewhat dutifully, to prove their cultural affinity for regular white guys; when that didn't work, they tried to change the subject to policy platforms instead, hoping in vain that voters would just sort of forget about all that guns and church stuff. In both cases, that failure translated directly into defeat. According to exit polls in 2004, Kerry lost white men by a crushing 25-point margin.

Given the fact that he is not, in fact, a white male, Obama would seem to face an even less forgiving landscape among white male voters. While voters overall give Obama the advantage over McCain when asked which candidate is better equipped to navigate these tumultuous economic times, polls throughout the summer and into the autumn consistently showed McCain with a double-digit lead among white men who haven't been to college.

Yet Obama has persevered, devoting far more time and money than either of the last two Democratic nominees on an effort to persuade working-class and rural white guys that he is not the elitist, alien figure they may think he is. The Obama campaign has more than 50 state offices throughout Virginia, a state no Democrat has seriously contested since Obama was a teenager. In Indiana, there are 42 offices; in North Carolina, 45.

Mathematically, Obama can probably win the election without winning any of these states – or Nevada or Montana or any of the other conservative states where he has campaigned in the past several months. What he probably can't do, if he doesn't convert enough voters to throw at least a few traditionally red states into the blue column, is get beyond what he dismissively refers to as the "50-plus-1" governing model, the idea that a president need only represent 50 per cent of the country (plus one additional vote) to command the office. From the start, Obama has aspired not simply to win but also to stand as a kind of generational break from the polarised era of the baby boomers, to become the first president in at least 20 years to claim anything more than the most fragile mandate for his agenda. Absent that, even if he wins, Obama could wake up on 5 November as yet another president-elect of half the people, perched uncomfortably on the edge of an impassable cultural divide.


When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he famously predicted that his party had just signed away the South for a generation to come. In truth, the outcome was more profound than Johnson could have imagined. The culture war, whose Bunker Hill was the campus quad of the 1960s, soon spread to just about every region of the country, where rural and working-class white voters, already anxious over economic change, recoiled at the vehement strain of antimilitary, anti-Establishment liberalism that took hold of the Democratic Party in the era after Selma and Saigon. The effect, especially on the presidential level, was immediate and drastic. In the 32 years before Johnson made his pronouncement, Democrats controlled the White House for all but eight of them, and only twice – in 1948 and 1960 – had the Democrat won by what could be considered a narrow margin. In the four decades since, only two Democrats have managed to get elected, and only one has claimed a majority of the popular vote. (This was Jimmy Carter, who eked out exactly 50.1 per cent without winning a single state west of Texas.) By the turn of the century, almost completely driven from the South and West, Democratic presidential candidates had taken to focusing all their efforts on an ever-shrinking pool of coastal and industrial states.

Obama, though, has talked from the beginning about running a "50-state" campaign, and he has spent considerable time and money in more culturally conservative parts of the country where Democrats rarely, if ever, venture, from Elko and Appalachia to Billings, Montana and Las Cruces, New Mexico. To a large extent, this reflects Obama's personal conviction about modern politics, which he first laid out in his 2004 convention speech when he talked about worshipping "an awesome God in the blue states" and having "gay friends in the red states". He told me, when we talked, that Washington's us-versus-them divisions had made it impossible for any president to find solutions to a series of generational challenges, from Iraq to global climate change. "If voters are similarly polarised and if they're seeing two different realities, a Sean Hannity [conservative commentator] reality and a Keith Olbermann [liberal commentator] reality, then we're not going to be able to get done the work we need to get done," Obama said.

It is also true, however, that a series of circumstances beyond his control have conspired to make a truly national campaign more feasible for Obama than for any Democrat since Carter ran in the dark days after Watergate. First, of course, there is the national sense of despair over the Bush era, which has made the President more of a uniter than he ever intended and which has enabled Democrats to get a hearing in parts of the country where they were being run off the land 10 years ago. Then there's the advent of the internet as a veritable money vacuum, which has enabled Obama to raise more money than any Democrat in history, meaning he can afford to pour some resources into states he has only a remote chance of winning. Perhaps most important, though, Obama's campaign has also been able to take advantage of a drawn-out Democratic primary campaign that came through all 50 states before it was over – a draining experience that nonetheless established networks of volunteers and newly registered Democratic voters in states that in any other year would have been overlooked. In three states – Texas, Indiana and North Carolina – more people voted in Democratic primaries this year than voted for Kerry on election day in 2004.

For Obama's political advisers, expanding the electoral map is not about making a philosophical statement; it is simply a strategic imperative. Presidential campaigns, after all, are about getting to 270 – the minimum number of electoral votes needed to win. In relying on the same 20 or so winnable states over the past few elections, Democratic nominees have given themselves almost no margin for error. By contrast, Obama's campaign, in addition to fighting for the usual complement of about a dozen swing states, has shifted considerable resources into a group of states – the list has, at one time or another, included Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Georgia – that haven't been strongly contested for at least three elections, if not longer. (Alaska was on the list, too, until McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.) The idea here is that the more states you put in play, the more permutations there are that lead to victory.

"If you expand the map, you improve your chances," David Axelrod, Obama's lead strategist, told me recently. "We didn't want to be in that same dreary position where the entire election hinges on three states, and you stay up all night waiting to see who won them."

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Obama starts with the same relatively safe 19 states (plus the District of Columbia) Kerry won in 2004, and Iowa, which Gore won and where polls have shown Obama comfortably ahead. He could actually prevail without winning either of the two big perennial battleground states, Ohio and Florida, simply by winning Indiana by itself or by winning both New Mexico and Virginia. It is McCain, in fact, who, having earlier this month abandoned a foray into blue-collar Michigan, seems now to be facing the more restrictive map, betting on the notion that he can hold just about every reliably Republican state while also winning in battlegrounds like Florida and Ohio.

At times during these final months of the campaign, though, Obama's optimism about the impermanence of blue and red shading has run up against the hard reality that after 40 years of culturally divisive politics, colours don't easily bleed. Before the conventions, for instance, most polls in North Dakota showed McCain in front by only a few points. When I spoke to Byron Dorgan, the Democratic senator from North Dakota, last month, he sounded ecstatic about Obama's multiple trips to the state and the more than $400,000 the campaign had already dumped into ads there. "I think it's the first time you've turned on a television set and seen a persuasion ad for a Democratic candidate," Dorgan said.

Not a week later, a new round of post-convention polls showed McCain opening up a double-digit lead in North Dakota, and the Obama campaign abruptly pulled its ads. Dorgan called me back. "I do think this is going to come back to be a fairly close race in North Dakota, but I understand we need the resources in some of the other battleground states at this point," he said, sounding resigned. "I just called to say, 'Never mind.' "


The one state that no one expects Obama to surrender before election day is Virginia, which may be the most critical of what the Obama campaign labels its "non-traditional" battleground states, both symbolically and mathematically. Like North Dakota, Virginia hasn't voted for a Democratic nominee since Johnson beat Goldwater. (It was the only state of the Old South to go with Gerald Ford over Carter in 1976.) But the onset of the post-industrial economy has probably wrought more change on Virginia in the last 15 years or so than the state saw in the half-century before that. The new technology corridor running along I-66 in Northern Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, is one of the nation's most vibrant, and the self-sustaining exurbs growing up around it have rapidly transformed horizons of farmland into expensive town-house clusters and strip plazas. (The area now boasts such high-end stores as Tiffany, Gucci and Hermès.) New exurbs in the central part of the state aren't far behind, populated by commuters who work in corporate offices in Richmond, the capital of the old Confederacy. Of the 100 fastest-growing counties in the country, six are in Virginia.

The influx of new residents – many of them highly educated, some of them recent immigrants – has created in Northern Virginia one of the nation's more reliable and rapidly expanding Democratic voting blocs. In the more socially conservative south and south-west of the state, however, where manufacturing towns once thrived and coal miners once worked the Appalachian seam, the population has been falling steadily as high-school graduates strike out in search of stable work elsewhere. Not surprisingly, the number of statewide voters identifying themselves as Democrats has risen sharply over the last two years, far outpacing Republican growth. The last two governors have been Democrats, and come January – when Mark Warner, the former governor, is widely expected to replace John Warner (no relation) in Washington – both of its senators will probably be Democrats, too. John Kerry lost the state by nine points in 2004, but that was a relatively small margin when you consider that he never bothered to contest it. The McCain campaign is concerned enough about holding on to Virginia, where polls this month showed Obama pulling ahead, that it recently opened 10 new offices there.

Any Democrat who wants a general blueprint for how to win Virginia need only look to election maps from the last few statewide elections, in which the voters narrowly installed Tim Kaine as governor and Jim Webb in the Senate. First, you have to pile up huge margins among liberal voters in the state's Democratic strongholds, most notably the inner suburbs of Northern Virginia, where Kaine captured more than 60 per cent of the vote in his race. (In the south-eastern part of the state, black voters are a major Democratic constituency; overall, African-Americans could account for close to a fifth of the statewide vote.) Next, you want to pull off wins in the exploding exurban counties in Northern Virginia and at least come close in the exurbs outside Richmond. Finally, in order to make the overall math work, you have to hold down your losses in the rural areas to the south and south-west. That probably means capturing at least 40 per cent in the economically devastated, gun-loving countryside that borders North Carolina and Tennessee to the south and Kentucky and West Virginia to the west.

Obama should have at least a good shot at achieving the first two of those objectives. His campaign says it is on pace to register as many as 200,000 new voters in reliably liberal parts of the state, and most analysts expect black voters to come to the polls in higher numbers for Obama than they have for other Democrats. For turnout, the campaign is relying on some 10,000 volunteers in the state, who are being trained to work in "neighbourhood teams" that go door to door registering and lobbying voters. Obama's campaign seems to have patterned its turnout effort after George W Bush's 2004 campaign, which employed a fervent volunteer network to churn out the suburban votes that put Ohio, among other states, into the Republican column.

In the mostly white exurbs, meanwhile, the economy alone should guarantee Obama a better hearing than Kerry could have expected. Like their counterparts in other states, young Virginians began moving into the exurbs over the last decade in search of something closer to their parents' version of the American dream. In the cities and suburbs where many of them grew up, housing prices were rising so rapidly that they couldn't afford to live in the towns with large lots and great schools. Farther out, however, in the brand-new exurbs that used to be farming towns, they found lower taxes, sprawling malls and affordable mini-mansions with driveways big enough for a couple of SUVs. For some Virginians, the extended commuting time to Richmond or Washington was worth the extra quality of life.

Perhaps no one is feeling as disoriented by the economic reversal of the past few years as these exurban voters, whose paradises are fast becoming prisons. They're watching as the value of their stocks and homes plummets, even as the cost of filling up the tank and heating the house soars. Traffic congestion along the state's main arteries has become a potent political issue, but fixing the problem requires more tax dollars. L Douglas Wilder, the former Virginia governor and now mayor of Richmond, has seen the desperation rise. "They're saying, 'I'm working as hard as I've ever worked in my life, but I can't save any money and I have to cut back, so what's gone wrong here?'" Wilder told me recently. "People who think they had it made – doctors, lawyers, engineers – everybody is feeling the pinch."

For a national Democrat, the hardest part of the electoral formula is probably the last piece – holding one's own in the sea of small towns in the southern and Appalachian regions of the state that are far more similar to the rest of the Deep South than they are to Virginia's northern counties. Voters here haven't known economic expansion in decades, and they seem to have decided long ago that neither party was especially serious about stopping the decline, or even knew how.

There is a strong sense in these communities, and not unreasonably, of suffering endless condescension – a feeling that urban America has already written off the rural lifestyle as a relic or, worse, as a joke. For that reason (and this is actually the point Obama says he was trying to make in San Francisco), cultural issues matter far more in the rural areas than they do in the exurbs, because voters see those issues as a test of whether politicians respect their values or mock them – a construct that Republican strategists have become expert at exploiting.


Democrats running for governor or the Senate can spend a lot more time shaking hands in these parts, working to distance themselves from the national party's smug image, than can a presidential candidate, who also has to carry all of the extra baggage of the party's stands on social issues – especially if he happens to be the first black nominee of either party. It probably isn't encouraging for Obama that in this year's Virginia primary, which he won easily, Hillary Clinton nonetheless dismantled him in the rural south-west. In tiny Dickenson County, along the western border with Kentucky, Clinton received 1,491 votes to Obama's 210. Next door in Wise County, it was Clinton 2,310; Obama 459.

Obama has responded to this challenge principally by doing precisely what he told me he had to do: he has shown up. The first thing he did as his party's presumptive nominee in June, two days after closing out the final primaries in South Dakota and Montana, was to get on a plane and come to Bristol, Virginia, on the Tennessee border. He has returned twice more since then to the southern part of the state, and his running mate Joe Biden recently headlined a mineworkers' rally there. Local Democrats told me that Obama's campaign office in the old manufacturing town of Danville was so unusual for a candidate of either party that its opening was treated almost as a curiosity, as if a smouldering meteor had smashed into the town green.

No Virginia Democrat knows more about how to win over white rural voters than Mark Warner, whose "Virginia story" is now legend for national Democrats. Running for governor in 2001, when Republicans had a virtual monopoly in Virginia, Warner visited the southern areas of the state dozens of times, promising to revive local economies by bringing broadband lines through the region and luring hi-tech companies.

He not only cut his losses in those remote counties; he carried many of them outright. His proudest achievement as governor, or at least the one he talks about with the most enthusiasm, came just weeks before the end of his term (Virginia is the last state in the union to limit its governors to one term), when he induced two large hi-tech companies to open facilities in the tiny south-western town of Lebanon, bringing more than 700 jobs with them.

When I asked Warner, who has campaigned with Obama, what Obama needed to say to earn the trust of rural Virginians, he suggested that Obama spend less time talking about economic despair and more time reminding voters of the hopeful things happening in southern Virginia.

"Celebrate Lebanon," he said. "Celebrate that we've got a place for your community in the 21st century." "Change" was a good slogan, Warner told me, and people surely wanted it, but you also had to give them a sense that you understood the challenges specific to their communities. "I'd like to hear him talk more about infrastructure, about broadband," Warner said. "I think he's still got to make the case that your kids shouldn't have to leave your hometown to find a world-class job.

"People make a judgement about whether you really care or not. Is it just a drive-by, or are you really going to invest?"