In order to win the presidential election in November, both Republican front-runner Mitt Romney and President Obama must answer the same question: How do they connect with working class voters? Much has been made of the importance of wooing independent women voters this fall, manifesting itself in campaign sniping about which side better represents their interests. But such a demographic is not separate from the working class, which likely will sway results in key states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio.
To be successful, each candidate will need to buck their perception among blue-collar voters—Romney seemingly aloof, Obama coming off as a liberal elite—by crafting a winning argument aimed at the "everyman" audience.
"For Romney to win, he's got to get Midwestern, blue-collar voters because they form a swing bloc," says David Woodard, political science professor at Clemson University and a former GOP consultant. "I don't think that they are really in Obama's camp – it's like they're able to be courted, but you have to court them. You can't just ignore them and hope that they come in."
Woodard says the Republican primary was riddled with Romney remarks that put a distance between him and the working man.
"I have some great friends that are NASCAR team owners," Romney has previously said after commenting he doesn't closely follow the sport. Soundbites like that, paired with an economic philosophy that promotes letting the home foreclose process "run its course" and "hit the bottom" along with allowing Detroit automakers to "go bankrupt" have left the former Massachusetts governor, whose self-worth tops $200 million, a bit vulnerable.
Romney also trailed Obama in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll that asked voters who better understands the economic problems people are having—49 percent picked Obama compared to 37 percent who selected Romney.
"It's clear that, one-on-one, [Romney's] not going to be able to relate to them," Woodard says. "Even when he takes off his coat and he's in his shirt, he looks too pristine compared to what the working class guys wear."
However, Woodard says all is not lost for Romney.
"Sure Romney's a rich guy, but we like rich guys – they make jobs," he says.
Romney's burden is not to convince CEOs or "the head of the company" to vote for him, but to convince the guys who are the "guts of the company" that what he does as president will really help them, Woodard says.
Gerald Shuster, communications professor at the University of Pittsburgh, believes Obama holds the edge right now with the working class, but has some advice for Romney.
"He doesn't have to be sympathetic, but learn how to be empathetic," he says. "Like, I may be wealthy but that doesn't mean I don't understand why you feel the way you feel. And that's the difference."
It's a tactic that's worked for successful presidents like John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and even George W. Bush.
But Obama is not without his own challenges winning over the working class, a demographic he's had trouble with since his lengthy 2008 Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton, who clobbered him among those voters.
"Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?" he had asked primary voters in Iowa, a state that did not even have a Whole Foods market at the time.
Shuster says since becoming president, Obama's difficulty no longer lies with his ability to relate with working class voter, but making them believe his policies aren't to blame for high gas prices and a sluggish economy.
"The average working person – the bottom of the middle class – are saying, I am voting this time, and this time they better mean what they say," says Shuster.
Economic arguments aside, for independent voters who haven't made up their mind, it might just come down to likeability. So far, that's a battle Obama is winning.