Obama's woes in microcosm

DENVER - Stan Greenberg is in town for the convention, and he's talking about Macomb County again. For Democrats who are a tad anxious about Barack Obama, that's not a welcome development.

Greenberg, a veteran Democratic pollster who has been tracking that bellwether blue-collar/middle-class Michigan county since 1985, would surely not be sounding the alarm about Macomb if Obama was polling well there. But since Obama is not polling particularly well there, and since Macomb is a crucial piece of the puzzle in Michigan, a state that is shaping up to be a major battleground this autumn, Greenberg is now back to talking about Macomb. And what's most striking is how Obama's current woes in Macomb parallel his challenges nationwide.

Macomb County, lower right.

Greenberg was first drawn to Macomb County, on the outskirts of Detroit, because it was ground zero for the birth of "Reagan Democrats," the working whites who backed JFK and LBJ with landslide enthusiasm, only to bail on the party during the '80s, trouncing Walter Mondale by 33 points in 1984 and Michael Dukakis by 21 points in 1988. Greenberg wrote an entire book about Macomb, detailing the voters' anger at liberal social policies, particularly on the topic of race. These voters felt that the Democrats didn't care anymore about the aspirations of blue-collar whites for a middle-class life.

But Bill Clinton took the Greenberg data to heart in 1992, and he cracked the Macomb code, losing the county by only five points - minimizing the damage, as it were, and allowing him to win statewide. Clinton actualluy won Macomb in 1996 by 11 points, and even Al Gore won Macomb by two points four years later (and the state by five). John Kerry lost Macomb by only one point, and managed to eke out a statewide win by three.

The problem in Macomb right now, according to Greenberg's figures, is that Obama is trailing John McCain by seven points - mostly because of persistent wariness among voters who, given their current economic pain, should be primed to support the Democrat.

In Greenberg's words, Obama is "underperforming" among the Democratic voters in Macomb, a county that is 90 percent white, 50 percent Catholic, and 40 percent union. And when we slice and dice the figures a bit further, Obama's problems become even more apparent. Greenberg says that 14 percent of all likely Macomb voters are what he calls "Democratic defectors" - in translation, people who are hanging back from Obama, people "who identify with the Democratic party, or independents who lean toward the Democrats but who are not now supporting Obama."

These folks aren't enamored of John McCain - they're mostly disgusted with the GOP - and they endorse the notion of change. Indeed, as Greenberg said here yesterday, "They want to vote for change. But they haven't yet figured out a way to do it." And that's because they're not (yet?) comfortable with Obama.

Why not? Several reasons:

To many of them, Obama still seems "mysterious" (as guy told Greenberg in a focus group). They don't know much about him, except that he came from nowhere. Basically, said Greenberg, "they're very suspicious." They're not really bothered by Obama's race (which is an improvement for Macomb, given the remarks about blacks that Greenberg collected for his book two decades ago), but they're not yet convinced that Obama would champion the economic aspirations of all Americans, irrespective of race. "This," says Greenberg, "is a threshold issue." And speaking of the economy, these voters don't yet sense that Obama shares their anger about what's gone wrong, nor their passion about wanting to make things right.

There's more. The wary Macomb voters are still trying to sort out certain problematical aspects of the Obama biography - namely, says Greenberg, "these voters do not understand how Obama could sit in Reverend Wright's pews for 20 years; they are not certain what conclusion to draw, and they are still watching and wondering." And they have strong doubts about Obama's commander credentials - as evidenced by one new Greenberg stat: When the "Democratic defectors" were asked which guy would best handle national security issues, McCain topped Obama...78 percent to nine percent.

The size of that margin may be partly attributable to the sludge circulating about Obama, and a willingness among some voters to swallow it (focus group guy talking to Greenberg: "Is he a terrorist?...I've seen enough stuff over the Internet that digs into his life and just, I don't know"). But McCain also talks more explicitly than Obama about defeating terrorists, and that theme resonates with these people in Macomb.

So Obama's challenges in Macomb, and at his national convention, are clear: Increase the personal comfort level, exude a fighting spirit on the economy, and buttress those commander creds. The good news for Obama, says Greenberg, is that over 40 percent of the Macomb defectors are willing to indulge Obama as he tries to close the sale, and thus they are still "winnable." In short, "they don't want to vote for McCain. This is all about Obama."

And if you want to track blue-collar white sentiment between now and November, particularly in a pivotal state such as Michigan, keep an eye on Macomb.