All reports from the Obama campaign suggest strongly that the president and his advisors will run a very intensive base mobilization strategy. There is good reason for this electoral strategy.
In 2008, Barack Obama won the presidency the same way all previous presidents did – by persuading the swing voters to back his cause. Bush voters in 2004 who bolted to Obama four years later accounted for 7.8 percent of the entire electorate. As Obama’s popular vote victory margin was 7.2 percent, the Bush swing vote was sufficient, at least in the national popular vote, for an Obama victory.
However, Obama supplemented the traditional swing vote with substantial improvements relative to previous Democrats among African American voters. (His numbers with Hispanics were – contrary to conventional wisdom – not terribly groundbreaking. Obama did about the same as Gore did with Hispanic voters in 2000, although he did improve substantially over Kerry’s margin from 2004.) The following chart tracks the importance of African Americans to the Democratic party’s presidential performance by reviewing the past six elections.
The last column is the one to focus on. It calculates the “boost” Democrats gained to their final vote margin over the Republicans because of the African American vote. So, for instance, the 2004 election was 8.5 points closer than it would have been if African Americans had split their vote evenly between the two parties.
Notice that Obama’s boost in 2008 was substantially larger than that enjoyed by his predecessors. This was due to the fact that more African Americans voted as a share of the total population than before, as well as the fact that Obama did 7-15 points better than previous Democrats among black voters. This added a little more than 3 points to his final victory margin in 2008. In other words, if African American voters had voted the way they did in 2004, and everything else remained constant, Obama would have won the popular vote by about 4 points, rather than the 7.2-point margin he did enjoy.
We might think of this as Obama’s marginal African American vote – coming as it did either from African Americans voters who would not otherwise have voted or who otherwise would have backed John McCain. In 2008, it was worth about 3 points.
As the president’s standing with the mass public has declined in the two and a half years since his inauguration, and his advisors anticipate a closer contest than in 2008, it is extremely important for Obama to retain this marginal vote. However, a challenge for the president is that his tenure has not been a prosperous one for African Americans.
Historically speaking, recessions tend to affect African Americans more intensely than whites. This one has been no exception, as the following graph demonstrates:
Over the last 40 years, employment for African Americans has consistently trailed white employment. What’s more, during recessionary periods, African American employment tends to fall much farther than white employment. It also rebounds later. The most recent recession is no exception, and today the African American employment-population ratio stands at just 52 percent, a level not seen since Ronald Reagan’s first term.
Unsurprisingly, the income gap between African Americans and whites has also grown larger in the last few years:
These graphs point to the challenge facing Obama. There is no doubt, of course, that Obama will – like all Democrats since FDR in 1936 – do tremendously well with African American voters. The challenge for him is that a strong performance is already built into the party’s electoral strategy, win or lose. What Obama needs to do is maintain that extraordinary level of support, to hold that 3-point bump he received from the marginal black vote.
Will he be able to do that, even though his tenure has not been a good one for African Americans' economic standing? That remains to be seen. According to the Gallup poll, Obama’s approval among African Americans remains extremely high, but it is not quite at the level it was when he took office.
This helps explain why the Obama team is taking nothing for granted when it comes to mobilizing African Americans. In all likelihood, the president’s reelection strategy depends upon another extraordinary performance with African Americans. With a limping economy and a slight softening of support for Obama over the last few quarters, an all-out effort may be required.