Hillary Clinton has been calling Barack Obama a plagiarist. Now she can call him a thief. Obama won the Wisconsin primary by stealing support from blue-collar workers, previously a key Clinton bloc.
If Clinton was to survive the string of February losses, it was going to be by holding on to what her chief strategist, Mark Penn, has called her "durable coalition." White women, Latinos, and older voters would be unmoved by Obama's flash. No group was more crucial to the Penn argument than blue-collar voters. Clinton aides argued that not only were they bedrock Democratic voters for Clinton, but they had an aversion to Obama. "How can the Democratic nominee win without working people?" asked a top Clinton adviser recently.
In Wisconsin, according to exit polls, Obama placed ahead of Clinton among those who make less than $50,000 a year and those with less than a college education. He has now won working-class white men in Wisconsin, Missouri, New Hampshire, California, Maryland, and Virginia. Obama also ate into Clinton's usual margin with white women voters. (Even if exit polls are tweaked in the coming hours and Clinton winds up with a narrow edge among these groups, Obama will still have won sizable support in areas where Clinton was supposed to be strongest.) And his double-digit victory came without the help of a sizable number of black votes, which Clinton allies had previously cited as a caveat to his victories in other states.
The blue-collar votes are important, because Clinton is banking on them for her comeback in the primaries of Ohio in early March and Pennsylvania in April. They also matter because as the two candidates make the pitch to superdelegates, who will determine the nominee, it becomes harder for Clinton to argue that Obama will have a tough general election because his reach is somehow limited. He is not just the boutique fascination of young people and wealthy elites. He has now won in every key geographical area and across racial and gender lines.
The Wisconsin result also gives us hints that Obama won't easily be knocked off track. For the last week, Clinton and her aides have upped their charge that Obama is nothing more than pretty talk. A week ago, Clinton started running ads criticizing Obama for not debating. He'd rather give speeches, she said. As primary day neared, Clinton's staff pushed the claim that Obama was a plagiarist. None of it seemed to dent his momentum.
The competition for the next phase of the campaign started as soon as the results were in. Clinton, speaking in Youngstown, Ohio, launched a string of attacks against Obama that didn't seem to stir the audience. It is often the custom for the winner to wait for the loser to finish speaking, but watching Clinton's attacks on television, the Obama camp sent its man out a little early. The cable channels switched to his speech and dropped Clinton, as Obama's people knew they would. "I guess cable just likes winners," said a top Obama aide, coyly.