March 6 (Bloomberg) — In 1980, I was working on the campaign of Senator Birch Bayh, the Indiana Democrat who was being challenged by an upstart conservative congressman from northwest Indiana named Dan Quayle.
One day, I traveled with Bayh to the Chrysler manufacturing plant in New Castle, Indiana. It was supposed to be fertile ground: Bayh had been the Senate sponsor of the previous year’s bailout bill for the carmaker, and Quayle had voted against the measure in the House.
Some workers at the plant were indeed enthusiastic to see Bayh, but some seemed diffident — and a few were outright hostile. The hostile ones formed a small group near the senator, and started yelling at him, “You sold out Taiwan, you sold out Taiwan” — a reference to his support for legislation to normalize relations with what was then known as mainland China.
Finally, the usually jovial Bayh pivoted on the hecklers, saying: “You (expletive)s wouldn’t have jobs if my opponent had gotten his way, and you’re yelling at me about an island that is 7,000 miles away!” On election night, Bayh’s vote from the working-class neighborhoods around the plant was far lower than expected, and he lost to Quayle.
This experience was very much on my mind last week when President Barack Obama gave a feisty, powerful speech at a United Auto Workers meeting in Washington. The union gave him a hero’s welcome, and why not? Thanks to the president’s smart and strategic action in rescuing the car industry, UAW members have jobs — and if the president’s opponents had their way, they probably wouldn’t. So isn’t it a no-brainer that auto workers — and for that matter, most working-class Americans — will vote their pocketbooks and support the president this fall?
In a word: maybe.
The impact of social issues — values issues — on the electorate is vastly underestimated by most observers and pundits. The effort to turn politics into statistical analysis has further exacerbated this lack of understanding, as analysts seek to find a strict correlation between economic data — voters’ income levels (or economic gains or losses) — and election results.
But consider this bottom-line political fact: In every election from 1988 through 2008, voters who said that economic issues were the most important factor in their decision-making chose the Democratic presidential nominee — six for six — yet the Republican candidate nonetheless won three of those six elections. The reason: the Republicans’ margin among voters who made their choice based on social issues was large enough to overcome the Democrats’ advantage on economic concerns.
When you look at two heartbreaking defeats for Democrats that cost them the presidency — Vice President Al Gore’s loss in Tennessee in 2000, and Senator John Kerry’s loss in Ohio in 2004 — soft support among working-class voters who rallied behind George W. Bush’s “values” message turned out to be the difference.
It is true that the impact of social issues in presidential politics isn’t a one-way street. From 1948 through 1988, Democrats had never carried California and New Jersey in the same presidential election (except for the landslide year of 1964). But concern about the reversal of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court in the late 1980s polarized moderate, pro-choice voters in those two states, and they have been solidly Democratic in every presidential election since 1992 — a stunning reversal.
Still, in the battleground states of 2012 — especially in the industrial Midwest, and the swingable states in the South — it is critical to keep an eye on the impact that social issues will have on undecided voters, and to not merely presume that improving economic news guarantees an Obama victory there.
In 2000, as the auto industry was enjoying relatively good times, auto workers defected to Bush in droves over (unfounded) fears that Gore would “take away” their hunting rifles. In 2004, the Washington Post’s David Finkel profiled Ohio voters with shrinking incomes, working two or three jobs, who nonetheless voted to re-elect Bush because he “shared their moral values.”
The Republican candidates’ botched handling of social issues so far in this cycle — from contraception to the need for higher education — shouldn’t give Democrats a false sense of security. The Republicans’ social-issue orchestra is just tuning up, and has historically found its pitch and melody as the election approaches.
What can Team Obama do to combat the onslaught that is coming? Here are six ideas:
— Lead with the life story: Republicans want to paint Obama as someone who was born at Harvard Law School and who has enjoyed the high-flying life of a best-selling author. While the president’s story was widely known to voters in 2008, it has since faded from consciousness; his campaign needs to return it to front and center. Obama was raised by loving grandparents and a determined single mother and learned values of hard work and achievement from his elders; a young man who gave up offers of high-paying jobs to help unemployed workers rebuild their community; a devoted father and husband who checks his kids’ homework and attends his daughters’ sporting events on the weekend — even as he shoulders the duties of the highest office in the land. This is the Obama who must be reintroduced to the American people in 2012.
— Root for Mitt Romney: Most observers believe that the former Massachusetts governor is by far the strongest Republican candidate. I disagree. It is hard to imagine an opponent less capable of leveraging social and values issues against the president. Any Republican needs so-called Nascar voters to beat a Democrat; Romney recently said that he knows more race-car owners than drivers. Any Republican will need disaffected, downscale, working-class social conservatives to beat Obama; Romney’s privileged upbringing, Wall Street career, and tone- deaf statements (like boasting that his wife owns multiple Cadillacs) will alienate these voters. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have botched heavy-handed attempts to connect with this demographic thus far — but they at least have some sense of how to do it. Romney doesn’t.
— Eschew elitism and embrace the elderly: It’s great that the president is taking his fight for women’s health-care coverage to the Barnard College commencement; it would be better if he took it to graduations at community colleges and nursing schools. Obama’s challenge in 2012 isn’t with Ivy League women (and their families), but with working-class men and women who need to know he shares their values. Likewise, the president’s relative youth and “change” message are enormously appealing to younger voters with more progressive values, but the White House cannot forget that the 2012 presidential electorate will be the oldest in history — and that these voters are the most traditionalist in perspective. The president cannot — and should not — depart from his own values, but he must constantly show respect and understanding for voters (especially older ones) who see these questions differently.
— Unity with “the uniforms”: The president has an unmatched record of support for veterans, and for police officers and firefighters. Affiliation with these groups conveys a strong message to culturally and socially conservative voters about values and priorities. Every chance he gets, Obama should be seen with these critical constituencies, and align with them. The broader message he sends will be powerful.
— Principles, not just policies: As I have argued previously, it is critical that the president make his economic case around principles — fundamental values that he is trying to fight for — not just policies. In recent months, the White House has gotten much sharper on this point, but the discipline of this approach can’t be relaxed even as the economic news gets better. If the Republicans want to fight the election on the battlefield of values, the president must broaden that conversation to include a discussion of the values and morality of economic policies, as well.
— Value the Veep: Readers of this column know that Joe Biden was my boss and is my friend — so I am clearly biased. But even his critics acknowledge the vice president’s strong appeal to working-class voters — especially manufacturing workers and union members in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin. His rapport with these voters is unmatched, and their attachment to him is obvious. He is a linchpin of any administration strategy to appeal to these critical voters.
A few months ago, when some were saying that soft economic news made the president’s re-election unlikely, I wrote that by embracing a values-based economic message — making it clear which principles he was fighting for, and which values he wanted to see our economic recovery embrace — Obama could defy the data and win.
Now, the converse also must be kept in mind: Good economic news, in and of itself, doesn’t guarantee re-election. The president and his team must keep a sharp eye on values voters, and not let these hard-working men and women slip away if the Republicans recover from their recent fiascos, and launch concerted, sophisticated efforts to win their votes on non- economic issues, as they have in the past.
Ron Klain, a former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden and a senior adviser to President Barack Obama on the Recovery Act, is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior executive with a private investment firm. The opinions expressed are his own.