Can Obama Appeal to White Rural Men?

05/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In a number of recent primary contests, white rural men have tended to support Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama. And the renewed focus on the views of Obama's Pastor, Rev. Wright, certainly doesn't help. But the notion that Obama "can't appeal" to white rural men sells short both Barack Obama and white men who live in rural America. It also flies in the face of the facts.

There are five important factors that are critical to understanding the role these voters will have in this year's presidential election.

1). Contrary to popular belief, Clinton's advantage with this demographic has been far from universal. Remember that the entire primary season opened with Obama's surprise victory in Iowa -- not exactly Manhattan, unless of course you mean Manhattan, Kansas. (Obama also carried the Kansas caucus by 74% to 25%.)

And let's remember he also swept other states with major white rural populations. Examples include Nebraska (67% to 32%); Maine (59% to 40%); Alaska (75% to 24%); Wyoming (61% to 37%); Wisconsin (58% to 40%) and Minnesota (66% to 32%).

In Wisconsin, exit polls showed Obama carrying white men by 63% to 34% and rural voters 56% to 43%. In Virginia he carried white men 58% to 40% and rural voters 79% to 20%. In Georgia white men preferred Obama 48% to 46%, and rural voters preferred him 60% to 35%.

2). Clinton's own super-high negatives among independent voters -- including those in rural areas -- present her with a more difficult task than Obama in many rural states in the fall. Take Iowa, where the average of polls shows Obama up on McCain by 9.3% and McCain leading Clinton by 10%.

3). My mother used to say that you know that a romantic relationship has promise if the better you know the other person, the better you like them. The same is true in politics. When Barack Obama first ran for the US Senate from Illinois, many pundits laughed that an African American guy with a name like Obama had no chance at all in downstate Illinois. Wrong.

As people in downstate small cities and rural areas got to know Obama they warmed up fast. In the end Obama won almost 53% of the primary vote statewide against three other very strong candidates. When the original Republican candidate was forced to leave the race because of a sex scandal, Obama was so strong that the state GOP was forced to ship in Alan Keyes from Maryland to be their candidate. Obama crushed him in the general election.

I had dinner recently with the chair of the Scott County (IL) Democratic party. She described Barack's first meeting with her mainly rural, white male precinct committee people. It was safe to say that he didn't have them at "hello." They were pretty skeptical at first. But by the end of the meeting, most were sold on Obama's authenticity -- and on his understanding of people like themselves.

So it's not surprising that in the Illinois primary for president, Obama beat Hillary almost two-to-one in Illinois. Most of Illinois' 103 counties are rural or home to small cities and towns. Obama carried all but 14.

Does Obama play in Peoria? He carried Peoria County with 69.3%.

Obama won Adams County -- home of Quincy, on the Mississippi River -- by 60%.

He carried rural Henry County in northwest Illinois by 62%.

The fifteen counties in the far southern end of the state are physically -- and culturally -- closer to Jackson, Mississippi than to Chicago. People hunt, have guns, are predominantly white, and are committed to their churches. Obama carried far southern Illinois against Clinton.

Exit polls from the Illinois presidential primary show white men went for Obama 59% to 37%. Those men and women who earn less than $50,000/year voted 64% for Obama. People who live in small cities and rural areas supported Obama 53% to 43%.

Well, of course, you say: these people are from his home state. But that's the point. The more that rural voters and white men generally know about Obama, the more they support him.

4). Even where white rural men express their preference for Clinton in a Democratic primary, it doesn't mean they would vote for McCain in the general election if Obama is the nominee. Democratic primary voters almost always vote for the general election candidate of their party, and for good reason. They are Democrats because they understand that McCain's economic and foreign policies don't represent their best interests.

The real question is not primary voters -- it is how independent voters (people who don't vote in primaries) of all sorts would vote in the fall. Obama has shown that he is much more attractive to that all-important category of voter than Hillary Clinton.

5). There is one more fatal flaw in the narrative that Obama can't attract white rural men. You can say what you want to attack a political candidate, but if, in the end, it doesn't ring true, the argument generally won't prevail. Barack Obama is the furthest thing from the "elitist" that the Republicans and the Clinton campaign have tried to portray. In fact, at his core, he's the guy who went to work organizing unemployed steelworkers for a coalition of churches -- not a Washington insider like John McCain whose family is worth $100 million and owns nine homes.

The renewed media attention to the views of Obama's Pastor Rev. Wright may briefly distract attention from the real Obama. Of course the silver lining of Rev. Wright's three day PR tour is that it was conducted with such utter disregard for the interests of Obama's campaign that it serves to emphasize the great gulf between Obama and Wright - both in substance and in style.

And as voters come to know Obama, they realize that he has a huge quantity of the one quality that is just the opposite of elitism: empathy.

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Abraham Lincoln, A Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin contends that Lincoln's ability to empathize -- "the gift or curse of putting himself in the place of another, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires" -- was one of the major ingredients in his success as a politician and as a person.

In my own book, Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, I make the argument that empathy is the key that allows progressives to win -- and is the keystone of progressive values.

Barack Obama is blessed with an enormous abundance of empathy. That empathy is the quality that will enable him not only to reach out to white men, but to bring people of different backgrounds and cultural histories together to create a common American future.

Robert Creamer is a long time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book, "Stand Up Straight. How Progressives Can Win," available on