Barack Obama and the Courting of “Joe Six-Pack”

by Randy Shaw on December 24, 2008

First published on March 20, 2008.

Barack Obama’s remarkable speech on race won largely raves from the media and pundits. But much of the coverage questioned how the speech would go over with white ethnic voters, routinely identified as “Joe Six-Pack.” Apparently, Obama, unlike every serious presidential contender of the past and present, must not simply prove he can win an electoral majority, but rather that he win large segments of every constituency. But male white ethnic voters have backed Republicans in every presidential contest since 1968, and even Democratic U.S. Senators typically fail to prevail among white males. Far from offering an authentic voice of the working class, the “Joe Six-Pack” icon is typically a solid Republican whose views are more representative of his race than of a class whose black and Latino members vote overwhelmingly Democratic. The real issue is not Obama’s ability to win over white male ethnics, but rather that he is well-positioned to add Hillary’s core base—older women and Latinos—to his current supporters, making him the strongest Democratic presidential candidate in decades.

In the CBS-radio national news coverage of Barack Obama’s March 18 speech, the reporter quoted a “liberal” who praised the speech and conservative talk-show host Michael Reagan who criticized it. The reporter then concluded that conservatives were not swayed by Obama’s arguments.

Obama is frequently measured by his capacity to attract rock-solid Republican constituencies. Meanwhile, McCain’s inability to attract women or people of color goes unchallenged, and rarely are Republicans criticized for targeting a narrow political base.

Why the disparity?

One explanation for this media double-standard is said to be Obama’s “newness,” which presumably requires greater media “vetting.” This apparently explains why McCain’s March 18 fundamental misunderstanding of the source of “terror” in Iraq is a one-day news story, while Obama making such an error would have dominated the airwaves and doomed his candidacy.

But a deeper reason is prevailing racial mythologies about white male blue-collar voters, which results in their being portrayed as more “authentic” spokespersons for the working and middle-class than women or racial minorities.

Reporters love the idea of going into a “blue collar” bar, and getting the opinions of a white male proverbial “Joe Six Pack.” The fact that these opinions reflect race more than class, and are coming from a predominately Republican constituency, is ignored.

Black and Latino working-class voters vote overwhelmingly Democratic, and clearly have different policy perspectives than the outdated white worker icon that the media deems broadly representative. But hearing from working-class people of color identifying with Obama’s March 18 speech would not be deemed by the media to be sufficiently “authentic,” as their views, unlike those of whites , are presumed to be racially based.

Having written a number of articles on the parallels between the 1968 and 2008 elections, it is tempting to view Barack Obama as capable of attracting the type of white male ethnic support that backed Robert Kennedy. But Kennedy was himself a white ethnic. He could form close relationships with blacks and Latinos without losing the white ethnics who saw Kennedy as one of their own.

Barack Obama lacks that background. He cannot be expected to overcome a forty year long political alignment that has put white males firmly in the Republican camp. If a moderate Arkansas “good old boy” Governor like Bill Clinton could not win the white male vote, nobody should expect an African-American from Chicago to do so.

The Winning Obama Coalition:

Instead of focusing on voting blocs that Democrats are unlikely to win in November, the media should be describing the breadth of the potential Obama coalition. The women voters over 60 who are going big for Hillary will all be in Obama’s camp in the fall, as will Latino voters.

Anyone who thinks the Latino vote hit its peak during this presidential primary season better get ready for what happens in November. Many of the leading Latino voter outreach machines were not operational for the primaries, as they have been targeting the November elections.

November will see the largest Latino vote turnout in U.S. history, and at least 70% will be casting ballots for Democrats. This means Obama wins both Colorado and New Mexico, with McCain having to fight to prevail in his home state of Arizona.

March 18, 2008 was a turning point in this primary season. Barack Obama displayed the traits of a potentially great president, and showed the depth and substance behind his rhetorical skills. He has the greatest potential of any Democrat to of reassembling the Robert Kennedy electoral coalition, a long-sought goal that holds the key to a sustained national progressive majority.

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