Obama and the Union Vote

Polls suggest mandate for reform surpasses support for Obama

David Moberg

One persistent question ran throughout stories on the presidential campaign, especially after Hillary Clinton won primaries with strong support from working-class white voters: If Barack Obama was the nominee, could he win their support? 

If more voters belonged to a union, Obama would have won more decisively, even among white voters.

While Election Day polls don’t provide a definitive answer, the short answer seems to be that Obama did moderately well among working-class white voters, especially if they were union members. 

But he did receive far fewer votes from white workers than he would have if they voted their economic interests. That is especially clear in light of Princeton University political scientist Larry Bartels’ evidence that there has been stronger economic growth and less inequality under post-World War II Democratic administrations than under Republicans.

Exit polling does confirm that Obama did better among white voters overall than either Kerry or Gore. He also ran better among lower-income than upper-income whites. But he performed more strongly among college-educated whites than those without a college degree. 

But the relatively smaller advantage for McCain among college-educated whites reflects the preferences of the best-educated. People with post-graduate degrees – 17 percent of the electorate and disproportionately white – voted 58 to 40 percent for Obama. But all voters who graduated from college split nearly evenly, and were Obama’s weakest group by education.

If more voters belonged to a union, Obama would have won more decisively, even among white voters. 

Election-night polling by Peter Hart for the AFL-CIO showed that 67 percent of union members voted for Obama while only 30 percent chose McCain. (Compare that to the 51 to 47 percent advantage Obama had over McCain in exit polls of non-union voters.) The union advantage was slightly higher in battleground states.

Most dramatically, union membership made a big difference in how well Obama performed. Union members over 65 voted by a 46-point margin for Obama, while all voters over 65 voted for McCain by an 8-point margin. Obama won by 23 points among white non-college graduates who belong to a union, even as he lost by 18 points among all white non-college voters.

Obama lost heavily among gun owners and white weekly churchgoers – except if they were union members. Then they voted for Obama, though by slim margins.

Voters who were among the 2.5 million members of the AFL-CIO’s community affiliate, Working America, voted much the same as union members.

Over the course of the campaign, unions’ intensive campaign of mail, phone calls, workplace contacts and home visits boosted positive feelings about Obama from 58 percent in June to 70 percent on Election Day. Negative feelings dropped from 25 to 19 percent during the same period.

Non-managerial workers overwhelmingly saw the economy or jobs as their major concern, and by a 53- to 34-percent margin saw Obama as likely to do a better job improving wages and working conditions for workers, according to a Celinda Lake survey for the Change to Win labor federation just before the election. Workers under 30 even more strongly judged that Obama would do more for workers and for them personally, according to the survey. And they felt he would better restore the American dream,” which they saw as threatened, 

By hefty margins, majorities of workers in Lake’s polls favored stronger government regulation of the economy, guaranteed health care, infrastructure spending to create jobs and reforms making it easier for workers to join unions. 

Organized labor, vowing to hold the new Congress and administration accountable, will push for all those reforms. But reducing the barriers to union formation tops its agenda. And the polls indicate even deeper support for progressive reforms to help working people than support for Obama himself.

That suggests that the mandate for reform is even bigger than Obama’s personal mandate, and that Obama should push ambitious programs rather than tack to the political center-right to win popular support among workers – including those white working-class voters who may not have voted for him.

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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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