Salena Zito

University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato is blunter: “There’s no question that race is at the heart of Obama’s problem with blue-collar white union members. You’d have to be pretty naive to think otherwise.”

Sabato explains that, normally, today’s severe economic dislocation would send union members flocking to the Democrats’ nominee. “Well, they are not flocking. McCain is their kind of guy. His biography and maverick nature are appealing.”

Yet for some labor members race does not factor at all in their voting decisions.

Joe Swistok, 62, of Southington, Ohio, is a lifelong union member who began working at Republic Steel in 1964; his father had worked there since 1936. He switched his party registration to Republican during the Reagan years.

“Reagan impressed me. That guy did a lot for this guy,” Swistok says, referring to himself. “This area is devastated for one reason: You can’t tax businesses and expect them to stay.”

Stricker thinks Obama “must make a strong economic-populist appeal,” one hinging on class warfare, in order to win Pennsylvania and Ohio.

To that end, both George and Rugola are engaged in huge voter-contact efforts -- door-knocking, phone calls, mailings, peer-to-peer efforts.

According to an AFL-CIO spokesman, 2.1 million registered voters live in union households in Ohio, 1.7 million in Pennsylvania. In a close election, every one of these votes matters for Democrats.

“Approximately a quarter of all American households say there is a union member in the home,” Sabato explains. “They are much more Democratic than average, but in GOP landslide years like 1972 and 1984, a majority has voted Republican.”

Sabato says that a third or more union members consistently vote Republican for president, despite their union leaders’ recommendations.

Part of Obama's problem is the contrast he presents: On one day alone last week, he spoke passionately about the country’s economic concerns, then zipped off to Los Angeles to raise $9 million from Hollywood’s elites.

That’s sort of like John Kerry windsurfing during the 2004 election: Union members in Youngstown or in “Little Washington,” Pa., just can’t relate.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.