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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Hillary Clinton Faces Uphill Fight for White, Rural Vote - Interviews in Arkansas Suggest Leeriness of State’s Former First Lady

 
Hillary Clinton with husband Bill in 1991, shortly before the Arkansas governor said he was running for president. Getty Images   

From The Wall Street Journal:     

DeVALLS BLUFF, Ark.—White, working-class voters in eastern Arkansas for years backed Democratic candidates, among them Bill Clinton and outgoing Gov. Mike Beebe, but have moved sharply toward Republicans in recent elections.

Now, as the 2016 election takes shape, some of Hillary Clinton’s allies are trumpeting her potential as a presidential candidate to bring these voters back to the Democratic Party and to run competitively in a handful of states, including Arkansas, that have spurned President Barack Obama .

But even here, where Mrs. Clinton was the state’s first lady, many voters say they view her with the same leeriness they do Mr. Obama and other national Democrats. That points to a significant question should Mrs. Clinton run: whether enough such voters can separate her from the national party many have grown to dislike.

“I’m mad at the Democratic Party, and I don’t see Hillary changing that,” said Eddie Ciganek, a 61-year-old farmer who serves on Prairie County’s governing board and who has voted Democrat at times. “Her thinking isn’t going to be very far off from President Obama’s thinking, and I don’t think they’re moving the country in the right direction.”

Occasional Democratic voter Johnny Watkins, 64, wearing a light-blue work shirt after finishing his shift at the county landfill, said of Mrs. Clinton: “I don’t think she has any concerns about us.”

Working-class voters have long been a bedrock of Democratic support, and the party continues to do well with voters from lower-income households overall, according to exit polls.

But white, more rural voters in the South and elsewhere have been fleeing the party. Just five years ago, Arkansas Democrats held both Senate seats, three out of four House seats, the governor’s office and control of both chambers of the state legislature. The election in November of Republicans Tom Cotton to the U.S. Senate and Asa Hutchinson to the governor’s office will leave the Democratic Party without a single federal or statewide officeholder in Arkansas, a state that Bill Clinton carried twice by at least 17 percentage points.

Mrs. Clinton’s allies are confident she can attract white voters who have turned away from her party, particularly women. Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who worked on her 2008 campaign, said she “demonstrated a significant ability to not only win votes from working-class white women but to connect with them on a personal level.”

After a rocky start in that campaign, Mrs. Clinton cast herself as a scrappy underdog and union ally while topping Mr. Obama in more than 20 states in Democratic primaries in places such as Pennsylvania and Ohio that have many white, working-class voters.

Recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News polling shows that Mrs. Clinton’s appeal among those voters has withered.

In June 2008, Mrs. Clinton was viewed positively by 43% of whites without college degrees and negatively by 44%. Last month, 32% of that group held a positive view and 48% had a negative view. Her image among those voters is only slightly better than that of Mr. Obama.

“The Democratic Party is in terrible shape with white, working-class voters, and there’s no evidence that Hillary Clinton brings anything unique to the table,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who helps direct Journal/NBC News polling.

At the same time, Mrs. Clinton draws substantial support from white women overall and from suburban women. Narrow majorities of those groups said in a December Journal/NBC News survey that they would consider supporting Mrs. Clinton for president, putting her far ahead of seven potential Republican candidates and Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Mrs. Clinton’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In Arkansas, which Mr. Obama lost by 24 percentage points in 2012, interviews suggest the years that Mrs. Clinton spent here don’t mitigate her support of the Affordable Care Act or the president’s order shielding millions of illegal immigrants from deportation.

“She’s never been a home girl,” said Mr. Ciganek, who pointed to her choice of names after marriage. “It’s not Hillary Clinton. It’s Hillary Rodham Clinton,” he noted.

Republicans also are trying to sully Mrs. Clinton with working-class voters by flagging her ties to Wall Street and her six-figure speaking fees. In a sign those attacks may be breaking through, 40-year-old Angela Thrift, who earns $9 an hour at a day-care center in nearby Carlisle, said, “She may have cared before she became famous and rich, but she doesn’t work for a living like we do.” Mrs. Thrift said she voted a straight GOP ticket in November.

Local officials say that a state where a candidate’s personality, roots and populism were once able to transcend party lines has become as politically polarized as the rest of the country.

“The nationalization of politics has come to Arkansas,” said Democratic state Rep. John Vines over a plate of barbecue at McClard’s, a favorite Bill Clinton haunt in Hot Springs, where the former president grew up. “I’m not Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi , but we all get tarred by the so-called sins of the national party,” Mr. Vines said.

In the November election, close ties to the Clintons and deep family roots in the state didn’t save Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, who lost his re-election bid and trailed Mr. Cotton by 28 points among white voters without college degrees, exit polls found.

“Historically, there were places where Democrats could win by focusing on bread-and-butter economic issues, even among white voters who were really conservative on social issues, and that’s the group that Democrats have washed out with in the Obama era,” said Jay Barth, a professor at Hendrix College in Arkansas who co-wrote a book on the state’s politics with a close friend of Mrs. Clinton’s who died in 2000.

Democrats have been winning a smaller slice of white voters in general, but increasing participation by Hispanic and Asian-American voters have helped the party in presidential-election years, even without winning many Southern states. Still, the steep Democratic losses among white voters in the latest midterm, coupled with uncertainty about minority turnout without Mr. Obama on the ballot, is fueling concerns in the party about 2016.

Democratic strategist Mitch Stewart, who is advising a super PAC preparing for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, called the former senator and secretary of state “a natural messenger for working families” because of her support for raising the minimum wage and measures aimed at ensuring equal pay for women.

“Secretary Clinton can appeal to a broad cross-section of voters—and she has a proven track record of building support among white, working class voters in key states,” said Mr. Stewart, who worked for Mr. Obama in 2008’s primaries.

Mr. Beebe, the governor, said Mrs. Clinton needs to speak plainly to middle-class voters who feel the American dream is out of reach. “She has to try to make as much personal contact as she can, given the constraints of a national election,” he said.

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