By Lois Romano
BURLINGTON, Iowa — They arrived here in droves in the pouring rain to hear Vice President Joe Biden, an ocean of white guys. There were men in overalls and some in suits, hardcore Democrats and wavering Republicans, undecideds and first-time voters, the unemployed and the angry.
After decades of taking a back seat to the growing voting demographics of women and Latinos, middle-class white men are finding themselves front and center again. They are being intensely targeted and wooed by the left and right, as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney fight to hold together their fragile coalitions and lay claim to the ever-shrinking slice of uncertain voters.
"They swung to Obama in 2008 and they swung back Republican in 2010. Now there is evidence that they might be swinging back because they have doubts about Mitt Romney."
The white male voter who is in play in this cycle is not part of some mass movement of volatile white men swerving across the ideological divide every couple of years.
Since 1972, white men have voted roughly 60-40 percent in favor of the Republican Party in presidential elections. The exception was 1976, when Democratic Southerner Jimmy Carter attracted 48 percent of the white male vote. Then, in 2008, Obama surpassed the numbers of Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry to win 41 percent of the white male vote nationally. But by 2010, white male support had shrunk back to 37 percent — a precarious landing spot for the president.
Now, things could be shifting again. Already struggling to connect with average voters of all stripes because of his wealth and social station, Romney faces an additional hurdle with middle-class men in the secretly recorded video at a Florida fundraiser in which he seems to be assailing the working class as deadbeats and moochers.
"I found it offensive," said Rob Hach, a registered Republican in Iowa who voted for George W. Bush and John McCain. "It cemented my view that I wasn't voting for him. We elect officials to represent all of the people. He made it clear he wouldn't be representing me."
Nowhere is this fight for the soul of the white guy playing out more acutely than here in Iowa, a battleground state that Obama won handily in 2008 but which Republicans hope will be close in 2012 — and where early voting starts on Thursday. (Recent polls show Obama now running ahead of Romney in the state.)
Both sides believe that their most critical targets are Iowa men here who have felt the biggest sting of the recession — often called the "he-cession" as government statisticians report month after month that the male blue-collar worker has carried the brunt of the downturn.
By some estimates, white men account for almost half of all lost jobs. It has been Romney's persistent mantra to remind this group that Obama has not gotten them jobs — and for Obama to pound home his argument that Romney cares only about the rich.
Shaun Brice, a 25-year-old college graduate from Burlington who has yet to land a full-time job, has heard both messages. He has been working construction part time for two years and is frantic that in a few months he will cycle off his parents insurance, which he was allowed to stay on because of "Obamacare." He will be voting for the first time.
Although he's from a staunch Democratic family, he doesn't see an obvious choice. He likes the fact that Romney has a business background and could shake up the status quo — but also likes Obama's talk of building a foundation first. But he adds, "I would just like more details about what each of these guys will do to fix the problem."
"Sometimes I feel like the campaign is not about what they will bring to the table — not about the people — but about fighting with each other," says Brice
After hearing Biden speak, Brice is no more certain of his choice. "Ninety-five percent of what he said was to mock the Republican Party," he said. "The remaining portions were promises without explaining how the Democrats were planning on delivering."
For Romney, experts say, holding onto close to 60 percent of the white male vote is particularly critical because he has fewer options to fill in the void with other demographics. He is not doing well with white women and he is unlikely to attract sizable numbers of African-Americans and Latinos.
In Iowa, as in other states, says Craig Robinson, former chairman of the Iowa GOP, "Romney must have a strong advantage with men to win."
Bob Petzinger, a recently retired retail clerk who switched to the GOP a few years ago, won't be among them. He was also aware of the "47 percent" video of Romney.
"What I took away is that Mr. Romney will do plenty to help his rich brothers but nothing to help me," said Petzinger. "I'm hanging in there — but I can't afford to lose anything."
A Gallup poll last month reports Romney with a 24-percentage-point advantage over Obama nationally among white men. Last week a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed Romney with a 20-percentage-point lead among white male voters.
In Iowa, a recent Rasmussen poll has Romney with a 16-point advantage with men; the former Massachusetts governor is favored by 52 percent of white men, to Obama's 37 percent. Obama prevails with women by a 50 percent to 39 percent margin. An Obama campaign source confirmed that Obama's male gender gap is particularly wide in both Iowa and New Hampshire, another swing state.
The overall demographic patterns tend to favor Obama because at this point women are less likely to switch to Romney since those already supporting the president tend to be more progressive on social issues such as abortion, helping the poor, and gay rights.
And so that leaves both sides, fighting to hold —at a minimum — their own with the white guys.
Doug Brehm and Rob Hach are two examples of the kind of voter neither side can afford to lose and yet both are losing.
Brehm, a lifelong Democrat and member of the Teamsters Union, enthusiastically supported Obama four years ago but is now angry that the president hasn't improved his economic standing. Brehm fears the Obama health care plan will further negatively impact his bottom line.
"I look at my billfold, and I ain't voting for Obama," says Brehm. "I am making $2000 less a year than I was four years ago."
In addition, Brehm says, his employer has vowed to cut back his and other employees' hours in order to avoid providing health care mandated under the Obama reforms. "I make $16 as hour and work 36 hours. I can't afford to go down to 24 hours. I can't survive."
Hach, a Republican wind developer from northwest Iowa, said he had become disenchanted with Romney when the GOP nominee made clear that he would not support the extension of a federal tax credit for wind energy, an industry that employees 7,000 people in Iowa. There have already been a number of layoffs. "The president understands how important the tax credit is to jobs in Iowa," says Hach. "Mr. Romney just wants to give a tax break to the wealthy."
The Obama campaign has blanketed the state trying to reach every voter. It has a massive outreach effort with 60 field offices, and both Obama and Biden have visited the state. Last month, Obama made a 37-town RV tour through Iowa, and last week Biden spent two days in blue-collar southeast Iowa.
The fight for white men also has the candidates demonstrating their manliness
This is why Obama can be observed downing a beer with the guys in Florida and why Biden crows about Obama's steel spine; and it is why you hear Romney's macho talk and threats on foreign policy and see images of him inhaling a hotdog at a NASCAR race in Virginia.
And in the next weeks, voters will be inundated with opportunities to get on board. There are Veterans for Romney and Veterans for Obama, Sportsmen for Romney and Sportsman for Obama, and Farmers for Romney and Farmers for Obama.
Indeed, a place for every politically precious white male who wants to be counted.