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Young, white, blue-collar women hold the keys to the White House

If Obama can maintain a lead among young, white women in Ohio, he can win.

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, when Christ declares, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” a woman at the back of the crowd says, “I’m glad they’re getting something. They have a hell of a time.” If Barack Obama and Mitt Romney continue to run neck and neck, meek Americans will for once count far more than billionaires in this election. And they will get to decide who runs the US for the next four years.

Let me explain. Going into the straight, Obama and Romney are in the tightest race. If one of them can take a lead of, say, even 3 percentage points by 6 November, there will be an outright winner with a substantial majority. But if the race continues nip and tuck, the election will be decided by a small number of voters in no more than eight marginal states. So, who are the undecided super-voters whose opinions count more than the rest? In previous elections, soccer moms and Nascar dads were deemed to hold the key to the White House. This time, sifting through the entrails of the polls, a picture emerges of a white, single woman, aged 18 to 29, who did not go to college, works in a blue-collar job and thinks herself a Protestant, though she rarely attends church. She lives in Ohio, though there are others just like her in Wisconsin and Iowa.

Advantage blues

Because of a system that tallies electoral college votes per state rather than individual votes, the US has an inbuilt Democratic majority. Groups that tend to vote Democratic, such as African Americans, Hispanics and immigrants, live in populous states that are granted more electoral college votes in a mostly winner-takes-all system. Eight states this time could go either way. If Romney does not win Ohio, which carries 18 electoral college votes, he must emerge victorious in seven of the eight other battleground states – Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Ohio has voted for the president in 27 of the past 29 elections, including each of the past 12. That’s why in the past seven weeks Obama has held nine events in Ohio, Joe Biden five, Romney 20 and his sidekick Paul Ryan 14. During the week beginning 15 October, Ohio was visited by the Democratic big guns Bill Clinton and Bruce Springsteen, both of whom were thought appealing to young Protestant, bluecollar, single working women, while Romney countered with Condoleezza Rice. Over the past month, Obama has blown $26m on TV ads in Ohio on daytime women’s shows such as Judge Judy and Dr Phil; Romney and his surrogates have spent $20m.

Ohio tilts towards Obama. It makes cars and, by bailing out General Motors and Chrysler, an intervention that Romney opposed, Obama is credited with saving 11,000 jobs there. Although Ohio has shed 239,800 jobs since Obama took office, a slow recovery is taking place and unemployment is down 1.6 per cent over the past 12 months.

Young Protestant, blue-collar, working women in Ohio are so important to victory that the two candidates often seem to be talking exclusively to them, irrespective of what questions they are asked. Even in the foreign policy debate on 23 October, both candidates curried favour with women. “[Muslim] countries can’t develop if young women are not given the kind of education that they need,” said Obama, a point that had just been made by Romney.

In the previous debate, the president addressed equal pay, educational opportunity, contraception, abortion and glass ceilings. Romney, meanwhile, is trying to live down remarks by the Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin, who spoke of “legitimate rape” and suggested that raped women don’t need an abortion because they abort naturally. In one response of 400 words, Romney said “women” 13 times. “Why is it that there are 3.6 million more women in poverty today than when the president took office?” he asked. But he raised hackles when he recalled the “binders of women” he’d consulted to recruit women to his Massachusetts administration.

The morning after the second presidential debate, the Democratic campaign pollster Geoff Garin held a focus group made up solely of white working women in Ohio without a college degree, and on the stump since then Obama has relentlessly wooed them. Talking of his daughters, he said, “I don’t want them paid less than a man for doing the same job.” In response to Romney’s promise to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, America’s top contraceptive dispenser, Obama cited “millions of women all across the country who rely on Planned Parenthood for not just contraceptive care. They rely on it for mammograms, for cervical cancer screenings.”

Double Mitts

In response to the Obama campaign repeatedly playing clips in which Romney declared he would be happy to sign a law outlawing abortion in all circumstances, and that he wanted to remove funding from Planned Parenthood, Romney put out an ad in which an actress says, “Turns out, Romney doesn’t oppose contraception at all . . . In fact, he thinks abortion should be an option in cases of rape, incest, or to save a mother’s life.” As on so many issues, Romney faces both ways when it comes to women’s rights. Sometimes he is a 1950s fuddy-duddy who thinks wives should keep to the kitchen, at others a pious pro-lifer who agrees with the religious right or a concerned boss wanting to employ more women.

One last thing about the wavering white working women who will decide a tight election: they did not watch the first debate that proved so disastrous for Obama. That may help explain why, since then, ten polls continue to report Obama enjoying an average 9 per cent lead among women. Women are not only more likely to support Obama’s liberal social agenda but in the past have proven more likely than men to re-elect the incumbent, of either party. Despite the surge in Romney support unleashed by the president failing to defend himself in the first debate, if Obama can maintain a clear advantage among young white women in Ohio, he can still win.

Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defines Modern Economics” is published in paperback by W W Norton (£12.99).

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.