WASHINGTON – Democratic Sen. Barack Obama holds a 2-to-1 edge over Republican Sen. John McCain among the nation’s low-wage workers, but many are unconvinced either presidential candidate would be better than the other at fixing the ailing economy or improving the health-care system, according to a new national poll.
Obama’s advantage is attributable largely to overwhelming support from two traditional Democratic constituencies: African-Americans and Hispanics. But even among white workers – a bloc of voters targeted by both parties as a key to victory in November – Obama leads McCain by 10 percentage points and has the advantage as the more empathetic candidate.
Still, one in six white workers polled remains uncommitted to either candidate. And a majority of those polled, both white and minority, are ambivalent about the impact of the election, saying that no matter who wins, their personal finances are unlikely to change.
“It’s not my main concern in life,” said Mary Lee, 50, a factory worker in rural Kentucky. “I know how politics is. I really don’t think it’s going to matter either way.”
More than disaffection drives these workers, according to the new national poll by the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University.
Their politics are shaped partly by their lot in the economy: These voters are among the most severely hurt by rising prices, and many are insecure about their finances and lack jobs with basic benefits. Nevertheless, many are optimistic about the future even as they express deep suspicion about government.
The group, which accounts for nearly a quarter of U.S. adults, gives the Democrat the nod both as the more empathetic candidate and the one who more closely shares their values. And while many express no opinion about who would do more to improve the economy or health care – or voters’ finances – Obama has the clear edge among those who picked a favorite on these core issues.
Obama’s standing with the white workers runs counter to an impression, dating from the primary season, that he struggles to attract support from that group. McCain advisers have said for months that they think the Republican can win a significant share of those voters because of Obama’s performance in the spring.
The survey suggests it will be difficult, but not impossible, for McCain to increase his appeal. Whereas Obama underperforms congressional Democrats by six percentage points among low-wage whites – 53 percent would prefer that the party control Congress – McCain has a seven-point edge over congressional Republicans.
Sixteen percent of the white workers polled expressed either no opinion or indicated they would support no one, someone else or simply not vote.
Nearly two-thirds of the white workers surveyed want the government to make lower gas prices a “top priority,” something McCain pitched earlier this year in advocating a suspension of the federal gas tax. One respondent was particularly clear on this point: “I’ll vote for whoever can bring the price of gas down,” said Brian Levesque, 25, a social worker from Lansdale, Pa.
But slightly more, seven in 10, say government should focus on helping people like them find more affordable health insurance, a core component of Obama’s campaign. Fewer, just over four in 10, want new jobs through an expansion of public works projects or tax cuts to be top priorities.
Overall, the survey suggests that Obama’s economic appeals have the most resonance with white workers who are under the greatest financial stress. Obama has a lead of 19 percentage points among those white workers who feel “very insecure” financially; that is more than double his advantage among those in the group who feel better off.