05/27/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Oregon Could Help Obama Defy "White Working Class" Problem

The popular refrain within political circles is that Tuesday's Democratic primaries in Kentucky and Oregon will provide yet another demonstration of Sen. Barack Obama troubles among working class white voters. The Illinois Democrat, after all, is staring down a major loss in the former and a comfortable win in the latter.

It's an incomplete if not misleading analysis. If anything, socioeconomic statistics show that Oregon, as much as Kentucky and perhaps even more so than Ohio, is a state comprised of the white, middle-to-low income individuals who work in a struggling but still important manufacturing sector. Indeed, if the Senator were to win in the Beaver State on Tuesday - and all signs point to a victory - much of it will be on the backs of the very voters whom pundits believe have written him off.

The population of Oregon, according to census estimates is roughly 3.7 million, 90 percent of who are white and 1.9 percent of who are black. Eighteen percent of all jobs are manufacturing, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the median household income in 2004 was $42,568.

Compare those numbers to Ohio, the rust belt state where Obama's failure to connect with white working class voters emerged as a popular campaign theme. There are, according to census estimates, 11.4 million people in Ohio, 85 percent of who are white and 12 percent of who are black - much less homogeneous than Oregon. Slightly less than 15 percent of the states jobs are manufacturing (less than Oregon) and the average median household income is $43,371 (more than Oregon). Kentucky, where Sen. Hillary Clinton is likely to have a major victory on Tuesday, is quite similar. The Bluegrass state has an estimated population of 4.2 million, 90 percent of who are white and 7.5 percent of who are black - again less homogeneous than Oregon. Less than 17 percent of the jobs are manufacturing and the median household income in 2004 was $37,000.

So why, if Obama is supposedly having such troubles among the white working class - as evidenced by his defeat in Ohio and impending loss in Kentucky - is he slated to do so well among those voters in Oregon? Perhaps it's because the Senator's problems are far more geographic than socioeconomic.

"Oregon is a state where race has not been an animating factor of political campaigns in the past. It has not been an issue since the 1860s, and it is not going to matter to people in the current election," said Joseph Lowndes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Oregon and author of "From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism. "Lunch-pale, white Democrats have become the signifier for journalists and it has been overused. Because as Oregon shows it doesn't matter."

Indeed, it is Oregon's political history, more than its population dynamics, which offers a friendly turf for the Obama campaign. The state, according to local officials, is filled with progressives and reformers -- inheritors, so to speak, of the counter-culture migrants who first came there. The political culture is hardly top-down. There is less Democratic Party machinery as compared to, say, Pennsylvania. Moreover, the I-5 corridor, as it is known, connects three relative urban areas that favor Democrats: Portland, Eugene and Salem. Meanwhile the eastern part of the state, traditionally conservative, has trended recently away from the GOP.

"[DNC Chairman] Howard Dean had a 50 state strategy and for Oregon that was a 36 county strategy," said Marc Siegal, a spokesperson for the state's Democratic Party. "We've been able to make inroads. And I think it is a fortunate confluence of the 36 county strategy, along with candidates who are inspiring voters in all parts of the state."

All of which is not to suggest that there isn't already a firm infrastructure of Democratic support within the state. Unlike Ohio or Kentucky, the state went for Sen. John Kerry in 2004. In fact, Oregonians have not voted for a Republican since Reagan in 1984. Since January, moreover, more than 110,000 people have registered as Democrats, roughly half of them new voters, the other half party switchers.

Obama is likely to win handily with the help of these individuals. But his potential victory in the state could also demonstrate that his candidacy, on some level, is having fewer problems with the white working class than conventional wisdom suggests.

"The people of Oregon are extremely progressive, and so Barack's message of change is resonating," said Nick Shapiro, the Senator's communications director in the state. "And also, the farther you go from Washington D.C. the more you want to change Washington D.C."