Obama Support Among “Bitter” Voters Unchanged

by Jeffrey M. Jones

No decline in support among low-income, low-education, religious Democrats

PRINCETON, NJ -- As Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton prepare for Wednesday night's debate in Philadelphia, Gallup's daily tracking indicates that Obama's support has yet to suffer following his widely reported remarks about small-town voters being "bitter." The remarks were first reported on April 11.

Obama said in essence that small-town voters are bitter because the government has not been able to help their economic plight. As a result, they "cling" to religion and drift toward narrow issues such as gun rights, and anti-trade or anti-immigration policies, instead of their larger economic interests.

Clinton has criticized Obama's comments on the campaign trail in recent days and is sure to remind Pennsylvania voters of those remarks in the debate Wednesday night.

Clinton and other Obama critics have characterized his remarks as being insensitive to less-well-educated, lower-income, and religious voters. If his comments are to affect any voters, presumably it would be voters in these subgroups. But an in-depth analysis of Gallup Poll Daily tracking data collected both before and after the controversy shows little or no change in support for Obama as the Democratic nominee among these types of Democratic voters.

The analysis is based on tracking data of Democratic voters' nomination preferences immediately before (April 8-10) and immediately after (April 12-14) Obama's remarks became a major campaign issue. Although Gallup's tracking data do not have a variable that identifies small-town residents per se, it can identify a number of groups that have suffered economically and are presumably the types of voters to whom Obama was referring.


Democratic voters at the lower end of the economic spectrum have disproportionately backed Clinton for the nomination, but her standing among these voters has not changed since Obama's remarks. Obama's support among voters making $24,000 or less a year has shown a slight, but not statistically significant, drop of three percentage points in recent days.


Last week, Gallup reported on the "education gap" in voting in the Democratic primary race, with Obama running strongly among those with a college degree or postgraduate education, and Clinton doing better among those with less formal education. Obama's remarks may have offended voters who did not attend college, but if they did, it has not materially affected his support among this group, which dropped just one point since the controversy began. Because Clinton's support among those with a high school education or less also dipped slightly, the relative positioning of the candidates among this group has not changed.

Financial Concerns

Education and income are essentially surrogates for lower socioeconomic status, and that may not necessarily indicate economic distress. The Gallup tracking poll can help address the issue directly because it asks voters if they worry about money. Though Clinton tends to appeal to voters with less education and income, Obama runs better among Democratic voters who say they are worried about money. That could be because blacks, who overwhelmingly support Obama, are more likely to worry about money.

Obama led by 15 points among Democratic voters who said they were worried about money before his remarks were publicized, and has essentially the same lead (14 points) since then.


Obama hypothesized that many of the voters he was talking about "cling" to religion because of their frustration with their economic state. But there is no evidence that more religious Democratic voters have shifted their support away from Obama as a result of his statement. Prior to the controversy, 49% of Democrats who say religion is an important part of their lives supported Obama and 42% preferred Clinton. Obama maintains a similar five-point lead among religious Democrats in the more recent data.

Black Versus White Democrats

The above analysis looks at subgroups among the Democratic electorate as a whole. But since whites are more likely than blacks to live in small towns, Obama probably had white voters in mind when he made his remarks. Polling has established that Obama receives overwhelming support among blacks, so it is possible he has lost support among lower-educated white Democrats in recent days but offset the losses with gains among lower-educated black Democrats, for example. But an analysis of the relationships reported in this review among white Democrats only finds no evidence that whites have reacted to the controversy in a different way than blacks.


It certainly appears that, as of April 14 interviewing, Obama's remarks have not hurt him -- either among the Democratic electorate as a whole or among the Democratic constituencies Obama was referring to. Wednesday night's debate may shine a spotlight on those comments and make them known to a wider audience, so the possibility remains that Obama has not completely weathered the storm.

Conceivably, Obama could be hurt more in a general-election context, where voters with the characteristics he describes might already have an inkling to vote Republican, and such remarks could nudge them more in that direction. But Gallup's general-election tracking data -- like that for the Democratic nomination -- have so far shown no deterioration in Obama's standing versus presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.

Survey Methods

Results are based on aggregated data from Gallup's daily tracking data, consisting of telephone interviews with 1,210 Democratic voters, aged 18 and older, conducted April 8-10, 2008, and 1,314 Democratic voters, aged 18 and older, conducted April 12-14, 2008. For results based on these samples of Democratic voters, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Margins of error for subgroups will be higher.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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