When You Fail at Retail
05-14-2008
Back in March, I wrote a pair of posts arguing that Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race was not really designed to win over skeptical blue collar Democrats. I suggested that he would only be able to improve his standing with this demographic group through a sustained retail politics effort in upcoming state primaries where the preferences of these voters were likely to be decisive. The Democratic race has now passed through several of these states, and as his West Virginia defeat last night underscores, Obama may be offering his politics at retail, but this group of voters isn’t buying.
 
The art of successful retail politics entails a candidate’s ability to physically demonstrate that he or she can convincingly identify with the everyday experiences of a particular group of voters. That shared understanding should then translate into a candidate persona and a set of policy prescriptions behind which these voters will throw their collective political support. Although Obama’s personal biography suggests that he should be able to find some common ground with blue collar Democrats, his attempts to actually make that connection in the past three months have been nothing short of awkward. Whether it’s bowling in Pennsylvania, shooting pool in West Virginia, or his palpable unease with diner food, Obama’s efforts seem to have instead widened his distance from this group of voters. Mix in the highly sensitive issue of race, and I am not even sure that more of the same kind of retail politicking will eventually provide a solution to this problem for Obama.
 
So, the task for Obama going forward will be a difficult one. He must continue to speak to the aspirations and experiences of blue collar Democrats, while realizing that as a candidate he will likely struggle in his attempts to demonstrate that he is just like them, and hope that these Democrats don’t really mean it when they say they will vote for John McCain in the fall.


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