Like many others, I was quite struck by the images of a partially empty stadium for President Obama’s campaign kickoff rally in Columbus. Media reports put the crowd at roughly 75 percent capacity, with the “nosebleed” sections largely unfilled.
This made for quite the contrast with Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. It must be worrying the top brass of Obama's campaign, which scheduled the president to deliver his nomination acceptance speech at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. How are they going to fill that? It is also a great visual metaphor for the problems with public opinion that this president faces.
In 2008 President Obama won election in large part because of increased turnout from and increased support of key Democratic groups. In particular, young voters (aged 18-29) and African Americans came out in larger numbers than usual and backed Obama more than they had supported Democratic presidential candidates in the past.
To appreciate the importance of these surges, let’s put together some hard numbers. The following graph compares Obama’s voting coalition from 2008 to Bill Clinton’s coalition from 1996. The reason this is a good comparison is that both candidates won about the same share of the two-party vote (53.7 percent for Obama, 54.7 percent for Clinton), so we can get a good sense of their relative strengths and weaknesses among key voters.
Two points are evident here. First, Obama did much better among African Americans and young voters than Clinton did; relatedly, he did worse with whites and seniors than Clinton. Second, these groups also turned out at a much higher rate in 2008 than 1996. The spike in the African American vote was particularly notable. All told, the boost in the African American vote plus Obama’s larger haul accounts for roughly forty percent of Obama’s total victory margin over John McCain. That’s a lot!
The conventional wisdom is that young voters and African Americans are solid Democratic groups, so they are, for all intents and purposes, in the bag for the president. Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that these groups vote strongly Democratic, and surely will again.
But no in the sense that not all young voters and African Americans are solid Democrats. Some are in fact solid Republicans, and importantly some are swing voters. In particular, note the differences between Clinton’s coalition in 1996 and Obama’s; this gives us a sense of the number of young voters and African Americans who swung to Obama. Similarly, we could look at John Kerry’s numbers from 2004 (54 percent of the youth vote and 88 percent of the African American vote) in comparison to Obama’s shares from 2008 to see that maybe 5 to 10 percent of both groups are genuinely up for grabs, meaning that Obama actually picked up swing voters from each demographic.
What about heading into the 2012 election? Can he maintain these hauls? Polling from Gallup suggests that, while the president retains outsized support from both demographic groups, he has lost support from a subset of each. That point is demonstrated in the following graph, which tracks Obama’s approval with both groups from the start of his term to the present (the dashed lines represent his share of each in the 2008 election).
If these numbers are borne out on Election Day, then Obama will do about as well with the youth vote and African American vote as Bill Clinton did in 1996 or John Kerry did in 2004. Obviously the election is a long way off, the point is merely that the president is having trouble retaining the support of the subsets of these groups whose support is actually up for grabs.
And there is another issue. It is not just that Obama is in competition with Mitt Romney for a portion of these voters; he also has to contend with apathy. Young voters and African Americans turned out in record huge numbers for him in 2008, and there is pressure on Team Obama to match those targets set four years ago. Failing to meet them could be a substantial dilemma for the president.
Think of it this way: every young Obama ’08 voter who backs Romney in 2012 cuts the president’s margin by two votes; every young Obama ’08 voter who decides not to vote in 2012 cuts it by one.
Now, to be clear, I do not think the president has unique problems with either of these demographic groups. I think his relatively soft numbers and the one-quarter empty stadiums are rather species of his general dilemma this cycle: he is not as popular as he was in 2008 and currently his popularity is borderline at best to be reelected.
The real take-home point, then, is that he can’t count young voters and African Americans in the bag, at least not to the same extent as he had them in 2008. He will carry both groups overwhelmingly, for sure, but elections are won or lost on the margins, and that is where Obama has problems with these blocs.