STRICHERZ: Obama’s blue-collar blues

There’s not much hope for the president if jobs don’t reappear

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Since President Obama took office in January 2009, more than 50,000 Nevadans have lost their jobs. Most are members of the working class. The unemployment rate among Nevadans with just a high school diploma was 14.6 percent, and among those with an associate’s degree or some college, it was 12.6 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The figures for those two groups were among the highest in the nation.

Many of these working-class Nevadans live in communities such as Reno and North Las Vegas, which are tied to the depressed local construction and hospitality industries. Judging by stories in the local press, those residents are beyond frustrated. “Reno is at a crossroads,” the Reno Gazette-Journal editorialized recently. “It faces falling home prices, falling tax revenue, decreased visitors and the highest unemployment in memory.”

In 2008, Mr. Obama won vital support from both communities. He carried Washoe County, which includes Reno, and Clark County, which includes North Las Vegas, by 146,000 votes, which gave him the cushion he needed to win. Political analysts say he is unlikely to do as well today. Last April, Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling found two-thirds of independent voters in the Silver State disapproved of his performance, while more than one-fifth of Democrats turned thumbs down. More than 3 in 5 of the state’s white residents disapproved of his record.

Mr. Obama’s declining support among white working-class voters in Nevada is unusually steep. The Silver State boasts the nation’s highest jobless rate, at 12.6 percent in April. But the drop highlights an important development about the 2012 election.

Reporter Chris Cillizza observed that unemployment figures in key battleground states will not damage Mr. Obama’s re-election chances too much because in just four states are jobless figures larger than the national average. This is true as far as it goes. High jobless figures have not erased the president’s popularity in blue states such as Rhode Island (10.9 percent) and California (11.9 percent); his approval ratings in both states remain higher than 50 percent.

But talk with pollsters, and they say that the president’s political problem is not simply high unemployment in the battleground states. It is confined largely to a certaingroup of people in battleground states - members of the white working class. Since 1972, Democratic presidential nominees have struggled to attract support from among this constituency’s Northern members, a trend Mr. Obama is continuing.

For his part, Mr. Obama has signaled that he grasps that rising joblessness in swing states is a problem. In Durham, N.C., he recently said that “the single most serious economic problem we face is getting people back to work.”

Still, the president’s support among the white working class has never been strong. He received just 40 percent of its votes in the 2008 presidential election. But as unemployment has risen from 7.8 percent in January 2009 to 9.1 percent in May of this year, his support has dropped even further.

According to a national survey sponsored in the winter by The Washington Post fewer than 1 in 7 non-college-educated whites said the president’s economic policies are making things better. Almost 3 in 5 said the Obama administration is doing “too little” to look after the economic interests of their families.

Pennsylvania is another state where white working-class voters are discontented with Mr. Obama. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the jobless rate among workers there with just a high school diploma was 8.4 percent last year; among those with some college or an associate’s degree, the rate was 7.7 percent. Blue-collar workers there blame part of their condition on the president, whose disapproval ratings rose to 52 percent. “Obama’s big problem in Pennsylvania right now is keeping conservative white Democrats in line,” said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling.

In 2008, Mr. Obama won Pennsylvania by more than 10 percentage points (54.5 percent to 44.2 percent). He carried Florida by fewer than 3 percentage points (50.9 to 48.1 percent). Although Mr. Obama’s approval ratings in the Sunshine State have not dropped precipitously as in the Silver and Keystone states, they have gone in the wrong direction. According to Public Policy Polling, just 48 percent of Florida voters in March approved of Mr. Obama’s performance. Almost 1 in 5 Democrats and 4 in 9 independents disapproved of the president’s performance.

Not coincidentally, working-class jobless rates in Florida have risen to levels among the highest in the nation. Among those who have earned just a high school degree, the rate soared last year to 13 percent, the fifth-highest rate in the nation. Among those with an associate’s degree or some college, it rose to 9.2 percent, the 10th-highest rate in the nation.

“There is a sag in his support,” said Democratic pollster Jim Kitchens, “He does well with the younger and older voters, whom the housing and economic collapse has not affected as much, and not so well with the middle-aged, who are battling unemployment.” Kitchens attributes Mr. Obama’s relatively decent support in the state to intense partisan feeling among Democrats and Republicans and to the small share of independents in Florida (8 percent to 10 percent).

In other swing states, high unemployment among non-college-graduates is only one factor in a dip in Mr. Obama’s support.

For example, in 2008, Mr. Obama carried Colorado with nearly 54 percent. Now he enjoys an approval rating of 51 percent, according to Public Policy Polling.

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