The nomination of Illinois Senator Barack Obama for President at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Aug. 28 had the kind of over-the-top ending you'd expect from a political party sensing a chance to capture the White House with a charismatic, history-making candidate. Following performances by Stevie Wonder and Will.i.am before an ecstatic crowd of 75,000 at Denver's Invesco Field, Obama accepted his party's nomination in a passionate speech.
Perhaps more important, with a heavy focus on the economy, Obama began the hard work of convincing American voters that he can deliver solutions to the economic woes (BusinessWeek, 8/7/08) they now rank as their No. 1 concern.
"Unlike John McCain, I will stop giving tax breaks to corporations that ship our jobs overseas, and I will start giving them to companies that create good jobs right here in America," Obama said. "I will eliminate capital-gains taxes for the small businesses and the startups that will create the high-wage, high-tech jobs of tomorrow.…And for the sake of our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, I will set a clear goal as President: In 10 years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East."
With the convention behind him, Obama has to confront some unpleasant realities. By many measures, he should be capitalizing on the economy's distress to build a sweet electoral lead. He hasn't. At the moment voters rank Obama and Republican rival McCain equally on their ability to address the economy's troubles. His often lofty rhetoric and focus on criticizing McCain and the Bush legacy have yet to convince many that he can turn the economy around or improve their lives.
That's why many of the convention speakers, from Obama himself, wife Michelle, and on down the list, spent big chunks of their time before the prime-time cameras emphasizing Obama's deep middle-class roots. Even as the McCain campaign tries to tag him as an out-of-touch elitist, Obama is ramping up his efforts to connect with voters, sharpen the contrast between his vision for the economy and that of McCain, and convince them he is the best candidate to help restore the economy (BusinessWeek.com, 6/12/08) and rebuild the American dream. His clear message is that he understands their woes because he has struggled with the same problems they have, such as paying off college loans and coming up with the money to pay bills.
That's also why Obama supplemented the high-flying talk of change, which many Americans have heard, with greater details about the middle-class tax cuts, investments in alternative energy, expanded health-care coverage, and other programs he proposes to help the American economy and its struggling families. Despite his support for a long list of such programs, many voters still don't know what Obama would do.
"So let me spell out exactly what that change will mean," Obama said. "I will cut taxes—cut taxes—for 95% of all working families, because in an economy like this, the last thing we should do is raise taxes on the middle class."
Obama still appears to be garnering a lower share of white working- and lower-middle-class voters than he may need to win. That problem remains particularly acute in the smaller towns and older manufacturing areas that have been hardest hit by the economic downturn.
Pollster Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic consultant who played a key role in designing the "It's the Economy, Stupid" strategy that helped get Bill Clinton elected President, says many of these voters are frustrated and angry. They want a new direction, but they don't know enough about Obama or if he is one of the "elites" they believe have sold them out. The real problem is among older voters, who remain most resistant to Obama's appeals.
In recent polling done by Greenberg, Obama's support among older white Democrats was significantly below the tallies racked up by 2004 Democratic contender John Kerry, as well as the numbers Democrats generally received in the 2006 elections.
Neutralizing a McCain Advantage
Obama's advisers deny they face significant problems with such working-class voters. Dan Pfeiffer, Obama's communications director, points out that Obama is doing better with younger "lunch-bucket voters" at this point in the election than either Kerry or Al Gore did. They also argue that the prospect of large numbers of disgruntled Hillary Clinton backers abandoning Obama for McCain has not only been much exaggerated, but largely put to rest by Bill and Hillary's feisty speeches backing Obama in Denver.
Moreover, Obama doesn't have to win a majority of working-class or white voters. Even Bill Clinton didn't. But he does have to gain enough to neutralize McCain's advantage with this bloc. That's particularly true in such critical battleground states as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, with their large blocks of struggling blue-collar voters. Obama's efforts to raise turnout, which could lead to a greater share of voters in his camp, such as African Americans and those under 30, could also help offset any disadvantages he has with other voters.
Thomas Riehle, a strategist and Democratic pollster who heads Washington-based RT Strategies, looks at the count this way: Even assuming Obama boosts turnout among black voters to around 12.5% of the electorate from the roughly 10% it has been in recent elections, he figures Obama will still need 41% of white voters in order to grab the prize. "To get there, he will need 37% of whites over 50, and he's short of that now," says Riehle.
Moreover, polls taken before the conventions show that despite the long primary campaign, somewhere near a quarter of voters are still undecided. "It's a huge number, it's persistent, and it's growing," says Riehle.
Those numbers appear to reflect the success McCain has had in raising questions about Obama's experience and background with a harder-hitting campaign in the weeks before the Democratic convention. The Arizona Senator's support for offshore drilling, as well as his frequently repeated claims that Obama will raise taxes, may also be hurting, while the Russian invasion of Georgia may also have helped McCain by reminding voters of the foreign policy challenges ahead.
All that is affecting the critical independent voters as well; a poll released days before the Denver show got under way, done jointly by the Democratic firm Lake Research Partners and the Republican firm the Tarrance Group, found a large swing among the 22% of voters who identified as independents. While they favored Obama over McCain in May, by August they had swung into McCain's camp. "That obviously has to be turned," says Lake Research head Celinda Lake. "He's got to define more clearly the economic distinctions between himself and the McCain/Bush economic policies."
Obama's advisers believe much of the problem simply lies with the fact that most voters still don't know much about him. "The issue is really whether people are paying attention—a lot of voters don't know yet where he stands on the economy, or the sharp contrasts with John McCain," says Jason Furman, Obama's lead economic adviser. "The more they learn about our policies, the more they come over to our side."
On the stump before the convention, Obama redoubled efforts to sharpen his economic message. Big venues have given way to talks in town halls with smaller crowds over the pocketbook issues that concern them. Those efforts will continue.
Striking a Balance
Around Denver, many close to the campaign argued that Obama has gone a long way this week toward making the types of changes that will help close the sale. But there was no shortage of suggestions as to what more he needs to do. Dick Durbin, the senior Senator from Illinois and an adviser to the campaign, says the more specific Obama can be, the better, to counter voters' skepticism about politicians promising to improve people's lives. "People are real cynical," Durbin says. "They've seen a lot of that." Obama, he adds, must be "as close to street level as possible."
Labor leaders like Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, argue that what Obama needs is a heftier dose of populism, more directly taking on the oil companies and others who, he says, have benefited unfairly from an uneven playing field that has left ordinary Americans struggling.
But others caution against going too far. Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute—the think tank for the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, which helped develop many of the more centrist economic ideas that former President Bill Clinton adopted—warns that frustrated as they are, these voters are motivated by their aspirations for a better life. "They want to climb themselves, rather than tear others down," Marshall says.
In winning his election, Clinton was able to find a balance between speaking to struggling voters' desire for more economic security and to their aspirations for expanded opportunity. As the Presidential race heads into the final stretch and Obama sharpens his economic pitch, his challenge will be to do the same.