How Obama Can Win Working-Class Votes

Ask colleges to end preferences for minorities and white children of alumni in admissions

For now, Barack Obama has contained his free fall in the polls. But the slim margin he enjoys over John McCain can hardly be a source of comfort.

If he wants to restore his original lead, he will have to do more than go on the offensive. He will have to deliver on his promise of being a post-partisan unifier and convince working-class whites to join blacks–two key Democratic constituencies–to join forces behind him. This charge will require him to perform a delicate double-maneuver: persuade working-class whites that he’s not an identity politician indifferent to their interests and, at the same time, assure black voters that his appeal as a post-racial candidate doesn’t involve selling them out.

One principled way he could do both? Ask colleges to end preferences for minorities and white children of alumni in admissions.

Racial preferences have been a sleeper issue so far, but they will generate more attention come November, given that Colorado and Nebraska are facing ballot initiatives–authored by a black businessman from California, Ward Connerly–to ban their use in public universities. If similar initiatives in California (1996), Washington (1998) and Michigan (2006) are any indication, they will win handily, thanks to white working-class support. Indeed, the Michigan initiative passed 58% to 42%, receiving nearly 70% of the votes in places such as Macomb County–home of the Reagan Democrats.

But Obama has condemned Connerly’s initiatives as “divisive.” This will likely irritate working-class whites who already feel alienated by his “god and guns” remark. Indeed, their antipathy is one reason why, despite pervasive disgust with the current Republican administration, McCain has gained ground.

The current average of major polls shows Obama leading McCain by 3%–certainly an improvement over last week, but still only half of what it was two months ago. The latest Gallup poll shows McCain leading Obama 55% to 33% among lesser educated, blue-collar whites. Likewise, a Zogby poll earlier this month reported that Wal-Mart shoppers support McCain over Obama 62% to 24%.

Of course, over 90% of blacks polled support Obama. But they alone can’t carry him to the White House; they comprise only 11% of the general election voters–and whites 77%.

Obama needs to do something–as dramatic as McCain’s picking a hockey mom with a working-class background as his running mate–to change the electoral calculus. Fair college admissions, though not the most pressing issue this election, could nevertheless resonate far beyond the states facing the Connerly initiative. These include Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia–all battleground states that, with the exception of the last, are part of the Rust Belt and contain huge working-class populations.

Obama’s comment to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that colleges shouldn’t grant privileged blacks like his daughters special consideration by virtue of their race over disadvantaged whites was a good first step. It suggests that Obama would be open to replacing race-based affirmative action with economic affirmative action–a measure that would appeal to blue-collar whites. But they won’t take him seriously so long as he opposes Connerly’s initiatives. Too precipitous a reversal, though, would risk a fall-out with black voters.

Obama can break through this political logjam by calling for a genuinely fair admission system: He should concede that racial preferences are repugnant because they reward not hard work or merit but an accident of birth. But, by the same token, so are legacy preferences, the vast majority of which benefit wealthy whites.

As Princeton professor Tom Espenshade has shown, racial preferences give black and Hispanic candidates the equivalent of an advantage of 230 and 185 extra SAT points, respectively, on a 1,600-point scale. Legacy preferences–which nearly every elite school, public and private, employs–also translate into a 160-point edge for children of alumni.

Dismantling racial preferences while leaving legacy preferences in place, as Connerly’s initiatives would do, won’t advance the cause of color-blind admissions because it will open up minority slots for white candidates but no white spots for minority candidates. It would effectively force disadvantaged minorities to compete on merit without holding rich, privileged kids to the same standards.

This message will resonate with working-class whites because they don’t qualify for either type of affirmative action. At the same time, calling for the end of both will mitigate the potential fallout with black voters for whom racial preferences are a necessary corrective to existing inequities in the admission system. They will be more willing to give them up if the system itself is fundamentally reformed.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards had railed against legacy admission but was silent about racial preferences. Connerly has acknowledged the unfairness of legacies but has conspicuously omitted them in his campaign to ban racial preferences. Calling for an end to both will allow Obama to acknowledge the important element of justice in both causes–while drawing attention to their partialness.

Obama’s political appeal rests on his promise that he is a candidate of change who can transcend narrow interests of race and class and unite the country around basic principles of fairness and justice. But he has yet to give any concrete example of how he will achieve such a creative alliance. Unfair college admission practices give him a golden opportunity to offer one.