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"Mudcat" Saunders: Why Obama Isn't Winning Working Class Whites

First Posted: 05/02/08 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 01:30 PM ET

Mudcat

White working class voters. They make up the constituency that many argue will decide the Democratic primary, and one that has thus far proven thorny for the electoral hopes of Sen. Barack Obama. Indeed, as the Atlantic's Ron Brownstein noted, Obama has failed to receive majority support from the white non-college bloc in every state but Wisconsin.

How could this be? The explanations are myriad. But David "Mudcat" Saunders, the famously outspoken Democratic strategist who preaches the importance of recruiting rural whites, suggests that politically strategic blunders are to blame, including, most prominently, allowing Sen. Hillary Clinton to define herself as an anti-trade candidate.

"The wild thing that I will never understand as long as I live: how in the hell did Barack Obama let Hillary Clinton become the anti-trade candidate?" Saunders said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "How did that happen? When we were doing the Edwards campaign, there was no question that we were the anti-trade candidate. And we were hitting her on the NAFTA stuff. They did not engage her when she started talking about this anti-trade stuff and 'leveling the playing field' stuff, nobody from the Obama camp said, 'Wait a minute. This is like Nixon saying he opened the door to China.' I mean he was the son of a bitch who shut it..."

Indeed, while Saunders says he believes Clinton's anti-trade sentiment is sincere (though he has no first hand knowledge) and he welcomes her platform, he was shocked to see the Obama camp cede such political turf to its rival. But that wasn't the only misstep made by the Illinois Democrat. The controversy over Obama's comments at a San Francisco fundraiser -- where he said small town voters were bitter over their economic situation -- was overblown, Saunders argued, but nevertheless played into a damaging stereotype of non-rural Democratic pols.

"I think it is absurd," Saunders said of "bitter-gate." "I think it is the prevailing wisdom of the Democratic Party. That's just a symptom of the problem. When Barack Obama was saying it, he wasn't saying that to get people all stirred up and stuff. When he was saying it and you would have asked him if there was something wrong with it, he would have bet you a million dollars to the penny that there wasn't anything wrong with it, because he believes it. I think there are an awful lot of smart people who believe in rural stereotypes. But the problem with the Democratic Party is that they don't understand...that a lot of these big city people who have stereotyped us, we have also stereotyped them. Therein lies the problem. See, that's what happened Barack Obama said that, he played into our stereotype about the big city."

Saunders should know. In 2001, he helped guide Mark Warner to the governor's office in Virginia. Five years later, he aided Jim Webb's upset run to the Senate, before signing up as a senior adviser to John Edwards' 2008 presidential campaign. The central theme of his work has been fuse Democratic politics with a rural power base.

"The Reagan Democrats want to come home, they are just dying to come home," he said. "All we just got to get a tent big enough to let them in."

But is it possible or even necessary? On Wednesday, Obama's chief strategist David Axelrod, argued that perhaps too much emphasis had been place on the white working class vote, as the group had "gone to the Republican nominee for many elections, going back even to the Clinton years." (Clinton did, in fact, win the constituency by super-slim margins in each of his elections). It is an analysis that Saunders argues is historically accurate but hardly permanent.

Moreover, at least in Pennsylvania, it was Hillary Clinton's dominance among white women that cemented her victory; she would have won even if the white male vote had split evenly.

"Historically, [Axelrod's point] is pretty accurate. But it is also historically accurate that the Democrats have never gone after them," he said. "Mike Murphy puts it better than anybody: the Democrats go after class and the Republicans go after culture. And culture encompasses class. Our culture runs from the poorest to the richest, class only inspires the poorest. You can poll the United Mine Workers and you can ask them what is more important, their gun or their job, they will pick their gun every time. It is just the power of the culture."

And yet, for all the importance of cultural dynamics, Saunders thought that Obama's bowling attempt and Clinton's Crown Royal shot-taking photo-op were ultimately inconsequential. Indeed, for either candidate to reach rural voters, he argued, their interest in small-town communities has to appear more than targeted or manufactured.

"I think [the Crown Royal] was a non-event," he said. "I think the bowling was a non-event. Thirty-seven [Obama's score] -- shit, I can't even get 37. I shot an 84 the other day with gutter guards on it. I can't bowl."

In the end, Saunders predicted, Obama will end up the Democratic nominee. Whether or not he will, before the race ends, receive the endorsement of John Edwards is something Saunders didn't know. As for the general election match-up, he argued that regardless of who's carrying the Democratic baton, work needs to be done. Never underestimate the capacity for the party to over-think itself, Saunders argued.

"They got to reach extra hard, which is what both of them have to do. Right now, if they don't do it strong, and I'm talking about small town, third-tier markets and beyond, cities of 100,000 and less, on down into the rural areas, they have got to run well there," he said. "Because that is why the Democrats always lose. You know, who knows? I don't know if they will try it or not. They might come up with some strategy that says if they win ten blocks in Cincinnati they will win Ohio."

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