The Youngstown Election Report: Notes on Unions and White Working-Class Voters

Now that the election is over, pundits of all kinds have begun to pour over the election results in order to determine how Barack Obama won the election. Important here is the question of how and by how much did a black candidate win Ohio and Mahoning County.

In a post-election editorial, Youngstown commentator Bertram DeSouza suggests that local Democrats shouldn’t get too excited about the Obama victory. After all, Obama carried only 19 of Ohio’s 88 counties and failed to get as many votes in Ohio as John Kerry did in 2004. In Mahoning and Trumbull counties, Obama received 61.7% and 59.6% respectively, far below the percentages gained by local Democratic candidates.  As elsewhere, Obama won Ohio by increasing voting totals among blacks, young voters, Hispanics, and college-educated voters throughout the state.

Some have argued that unions were responsible for the Obama victory. The AFL-CIO had a two-prong strategy. First, each union would be largely responsible for getting union households to vote for Obama. Second, the AFL-CIO built a new organization, Working America, that was responsible for turning out nonunion white working-class voters for Obama. Over 200 paid organizers were hired by the AFL-CIO as part of the Working America project to work in Ohio. Together with 175 SEIU organizers in African-American communities and community organizers from ACORN,  MoveOn, and the Public Interest Research Group  in suburban communities, Working America played a central role in organizing nonunion households in Ohio.

Nationally, the AFL-CIO strategy focused on “union heavy swing states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.” Exit polls by AFL-CIO pollster Peter Hart suggest that Obama won among white male AFL-CIO members by 18 points, even as he lost among white male voters overall by 16 points.  Support from white male union members contributed to Obama’s victories in industrial states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Thus unions provided a “firewall” that prevented a McCain victory.

But the Ohio results among union voters were disappointing. CNN exit polls show that in Ohio only 58% of union members and 56% of union household voters went for Obama. This is much lower than in other Midwest battleground states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Missouri, and even lower than the national average which includes many states with meager union density.

Nation or States

Union Households

Union Members

% of voters % for Dem % of voters % for Dem

























SOURCE: CNN Election Center

Further, and more disturbing, in the Youngstown area union members staffing phone banks reported resistance,  especially among UAW and building trade union members, who often mentioned that they would not vote for Obama because of race.  Of course, this information is anecdotal, but it is consistent with traditional white working-class voting patterns. In 2004, only 40%  of whites in Ohio with no college education (working class) voted for John Kerry.

While internal union activities were less effective in Ohio than in comparable states, the AFL-CIO s’ involvement in Working America here was arguably much more successful in influencing voters in nonunion households. In Ohio, 51% of nonunion households voted for Obama — a seven-point increase from the 44% that voted for Kerry in 2004.

So what can we conclude?   My guess is that the older, predominately white, industrial working class continues to be a major influence on voting patterns but is increasingly being offset by a new working class composed of younger, more diverse, and better educated voters.  For example, black voters in Ohio grew by 3% since 2004 and supported Obama by a 95 point margin compared to John Kerry’s 68 point margin. Likewise, while they still vote Democratic, the unionized white industrial working class is declining in both numbers and political clout. Lastly, because Ohio has an older, less educated population with fewer black and Hispanic voters than other states, race continues to influence voting patterns here.  Race may matter less than it did in the past, but the combination of race and class still matters.

John Russo

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6 Responses to The Youngstown Election Report: Notes on Unions and White Working-Class Voters

  1. Pingback: Obama’s Ohio Report « The Disorder Of Things

  2. Rev. Robert Johnson says:

    Given the tenor of racialized politics in the Mahoning Region, it is actually surprising the numbers supporting President-elect Obama weren’t lower.

    Anecdoctally speaking, several members of the congregation where I serve confided in me that, prior to the election, while they didn’t like the policies of the current president, they were not comfortable with an election of Sen. Obama. Concerns ranged from inexperience, to a concern that he would be assassinated soon after taking office, to just not being comfortable with a Black president.

    In the end, however, the economy and access to health care seemed to trump Republican gains. In the words of a disappointed Sen. Hillary Clinton supporter: “I just closed my eyes and pushed the button for Obama.”


  3. To even think that the Building Trades in the Mahoning Valley sat on their hands and did nothing during this election is offensive. There has never been such a clear goal between ALL of the unions, whether affiliated with the AFL/CIO or not- to change current leadership for a new and reformed D.O.L. , Infastructure spending without Davis Bacon being handcuffed, and the list goes on. Labor played a huge roll in this election and I can wake up, look at myself in the mirror knowing our organization helped make history.


  4. Pingback: Social Class Links 11/20/2008 « Education and Class

  5. Leo Jennings says:

    Much of the underperformance among union members/union households may be attributable to the fact that five Ohio counties with substantil union concentration, Trumbull, Columbiana, Jefferson, Belmont, and Monroe, were among the relative handful of areas in the nation in which McCain performed better than Bush did in 2004. For the most part the other counties in which McCain outperformed Bush are in the South: Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma.

    There are no such counties in Michigan, relatively few in Missouri and those are located in the state’s rural area, and even fewer in Pennsylvania, although it is interesting to note that two of them, Washington and Beaver, are adjacent to the Ohio counties that shifted GOP. In addition, Obama lost both these Pa. counties–Kerry won both in 2004.

    While we are all still digging into the data, as the process moves forward it will be important to discern what unions these voters are affiliated with and as well as what other demographic and socio-economic factors may have contributed to the shift and resultant underperformance.


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