Campaign riff: Hello! 'I'm the [son/daughter] of a [blue collar worker]'

Why presidential candidates are eager to let voters know that a father, mother, or grandfather worked a blue-collar job.

John Locher/AP
Hillary Rodham Clinton (r.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, speak during the CNN Democratic presidential debate on Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas.

“Son/daughter/granddaughter of a [blue-collar worker]”: A candidate’s quick biographical shorthand to reassure audiences, “I’m not a snooty elitist; I’m just like you.”

On-message candidates who rely too much on the phrase inevitably get roundly mocked in the political press. But judging by how often the candidates continue to deploy it, they don’t care.

At last week’s Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton let it be known right away that she’s “the granddaughter of a factory worker.” In marked contrast to her 2008 campaign, she also has frequently talked about her father, Hugh Rodham, a small-business owner who “just believed that you had to work hard to make your way and do whatever you had to do to be successful and provided a good living for our family.”

On the Republican side, Ohio Gov. John Kasich has missed no chance to mention that his dad John Sr. was a postal worker. At the initial GOP debate in August, Governor Kasich answered a question about the economy by responding: “Let’s start off with my father being a mailman. I understand the concerns of all the folks across this country.” The conservative National Review once began a piece on Kasich with, “Have you heard that John Kasich’s dad was a mailman? If not, then you’ve probably never been around Ohio’s Republican governor.”

Other current and former candidates, of course, have made frequent mention of their fathers’ humble ways of earning a living: Marco Rubio (bartender), Chris Christie (accountant), Bernie Sanders (paint salesman), Scott Walker (small-town church pastor), Rick Perry (farmer and tail gunner on a B-17 during World War II). Ted Cruz has gone a step further in often bringing his father (a dishwasher-turned-Baptist preacher) along with him on the campaign trail. One thing it helps them do is draw a distinction between themselves and Jeb Bush (son of an ex-president).

But no one has yet eclipsed Democrat John Edwards. In the 2008 race, the former US senator and wealthy trial lawyer from North Carolina was so relentlessly on-message in bringing up his patriarch’s place of employment – a mill – that the media repeatedly rolled its eyes. “Edwards, the aw-shucks country boy, may have unfortunate timing, but his mama didn’t raise no fool,” Republican pundit Kathleen Parker wrote in a column sarcastically headlined “Did Edwards Mention His Dad Was a Millworker?” “Neither did his daddy, who, you may have heard, was a millworker.”

Chuck McCutcheon writes his "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

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