Hillary Clinton gets the votes of the Latinos and the ladies. Barack Obama gets the black vote. Who does that leave out? The white guys. And the battle for this demographic is heating up between the two Democratic candidates. When John Edwards left the race, white males may have lost their logical choice. Since then, Clinton and Obama have begun to incorporate more of Edwards's populist rhetoric into their campaigns.
The populist themes are meant to appeal to a demographic that political analysts rarely spend much time talking about and that both candidates need in the tight race to clinch the Democratic nomination—white men, who make up 36 to 39 percent of the electorate.
"They are both going after the Edwards vote—white, male, blue collar—and there are a lot of them in Ohio," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "If Obama wants to come close or win Ohio, he's going to have to be successful with white men."
And recently, the Illinois senator has been. While Clinton held the white male vote in many of the earlier Democratic primaries, Obama carried it in Virginia, the one Potomac primary state that Clinton had the best shot at winning. Obama received an even higher percentage of white male voters in Wisconsin, where 63 percent selected the Illinois senator to 34 percent who chose Clinton. And he won both states.
Despite the current focus on the primaries, there's a larger elephant in the room, so to speak: The Democratic Party struggles with attracting white male voters.
In politics, the "gender gap" is commonly used to refer to women voting Democratic. The flip side of this is that men—white men, to be more specific—vote Republican. But this wasn't always the case. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, blue-collar white men were a part of his New Deal coalition. But in the 1960s, Democrats embraced the civil rights movement and targeted black and female voters. At the same time, explains David Paul Kuhn, author of The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma, white men played the role of the scapegoat and were deemed racist and sexist. "The Democratic Party saw white men for their worst vice and none of their virtue," Kuhn says. By 1980, white men were easily being wooed by Ronald Reagan and the Republicans, and many Democratic men transformed into the "Reagan Democrats."
The explanation for their desertion of the Democratic Party has often been boiled down to stereotypes: White men are simply racist or sexist. "It just felt right [to say] that they left for all the wrong reasons," explains Kuhn. But Kuhn says there are other, more complicated reasons that white men left the Democratic Party. "Considering when the divorce occurred, it wasn't all their fault. They weren't all racist, sexist, misogynist pigs," Kuhn says. "It was sort of the 1970s new man against the 1950s classical man....these men had real reasons to ditch the Democratic Party." But that's not to say that gender and race didn't and don't play a role. By the time the Vietnam War was ending, men didn't feel as comfortable with the cultural and social liberalism of the Democrats, adds senior fellow Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute.
In 1980, Reagan won 61 percent of the white male vote, and Democrats haven't won a majority since. In recent years, white male voters went lopsidedly for Republican George W. Bush. In 2004, Bush received 61 percent to John Kerry's 38 percent, and in 2000, Bush received 61.7 percent to Al Gore's 35.2 percent. Had Kerry carried about an additional 5 percent of white men, he would have been running for re-election right now.
This time around, John McCain poses a formidable challenge for Democrats trying to woo white male voters away from the Republican Party. "The almost certain Republican nominee, Senator McCain, is someone whose life story is intrinsically appealing to a significant swath of white men who can identify with his narrative and also with the virtues and ideals that he embodies," William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says. "At the same time, it is now certain that the Democratic Party will nominate someone who is not a white male for the first time in its history, and that raises the obvious questions."