The conventional wisdom is that Barack Obama’s decline in the polls represents a new, unexpected turn against him. But an examination of the results of the recent elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts suggests that what we might really be seeing is a return to the skepticism that significant portions of the electorate have showed about Obama from the beginning of his national career.
For six months during the 2008 primaries, Obama and Hillary Clinton crisscrossed the country wooing voters. Obama consistently failed to win over important parts of the Democratic base, even after it became clear that he was going to be his party’s nominee.
On February 5—Super Tuesday— Obama did poorly in both New Jersey and Massachusetts, losing to Clinton by 10 and 15 points, respectively. The exit polls were in line with Obama’s performance throughout the primary race: He did very well with blacks, wealthy voters, highly educated voters, and very young voters. He did poorly with working-class whites and older voters. In New Jersey, Obama was +20 among voters under the age of 29, but about -26 among voters over 50. In Massachusetts, he ran even with young voters, and -31 among those over 65. As for education, Obama was -41 among voters with only a high school degree, but ran even, or just ahead, among voters possessing postgraduate degrees. And then there was gender and race. In New Jersey, Obama was -19 among white men; in Massachusetts he was +1.
In addition to the demography, there was geography. Obama ran well in urban enclaves. He also did well in college towns and state capitals. But he did poorly in the suburbs and in smaller industrial towns.
A week after Super Tuesday, Obama won the Virginia primary. He performed somewhat better in all categories, even winning white men by 18 points. But his victory came largely from blacks (who made up 30 percent of the vote, and whom he won 90 to 10) and the upscale Northern Virginia suburbs, increasingly home to a highly educated class of government and technology workers.
Reviewing the primary fight, Michael Barone noted that Obama got majorities “from whites only in his home state (Illinois), in states where the white Democratic primary electorate is unusually upscale and non-Jewish (Virginia, Vermont), and in mountain states where the cultural divide is not black-white.” This racial divide, Barone explained, was part of a larger, cultural divide between Jacksonians and academics. “In state after state, we have seen Obama do extraordinarily well in academic and state capital enclaves. In state after state, we have seen Clinton do extraordinarily well in enclaves dominated by Jacksonians.”
The Jacksonian Democrats tended to be white and working-class; the academics tended to be highly educated, and often government employees. This divide is often attributed to latent racism in the Jacksonians. But a suspicion of Barack Obama shouldn’t make you a racist. Consider the case of Buchanan County, a Jacksonian stronghold on the Virginia border next to both West Virginia and Kentucky. Obama lost Buchanan County to Hillary Clinton by a margin of 90 to 9. Which might make one view Buchananites with some suspicion—except that in the 1989 gubernatorial race, Douglas Wilder won Buchanan County by 18 points over his (white) Republican rival.
In the general election, Obama was finally able to convert some of the voters who had resisted him. Massachusetts doesn’t have many Jacksonians, but it does have white ethnic enclaves. Obama went +7 among white Massachusetts men, and his share of white Democrats was nearly the same as his share of all Democrats, meaning that he brought home most of the Clinton voters. In New Jersey, he did less well in this conversion: His white Democratic share ran 4 points behind his overall Democratic share. In Virginia, the Jacksonians warmed to him. After getting shellacked in Buchanan County by Clinton, he lost to McCain there by only 5 points.
The question, then, is how these various coalition groups—the white ethnic enclaves, the Jacksonians, the suburban and industrial town voters—have reacted to Democrats since Obama took office. And the answer is: Without enthusiasm.
In Virginia, Republican Bob McDonnell won an 18-point victory in a state Obama carried by 6 points. Obama had been -24 among white men in 2008; McDonnell was +43. Obama had carried every income bracket under $75,000 by at least double-digit margins. McDonnell was -8 among those making between $15,000 and $30,000 a year. He was +6 from there up to $50,000 and +28 among those making between $50,000 and $75,000. Where Obama had lost whites without college degrees by a big margin—34 percent—McDonnell did even better than McCain had, rolling up a 51-point advantage. Buchanan County? McDonnell won it by 26 points, a 21-point swing against the Democrats.
In New Jersey, it was worse. Chris Christie was outspent by a millionaire incumbent in a state Obama won by 15 points. Christie won by 5 points, and the exit polls showed defections among the same groups who had been against Obama in the presidential primaries. Where Obama had been only -3 among white men, Christie was +34; where Obama had run even with older whites, Christie was +25; where Obama had been competitive among non-college educated whites (he was only -4 in the general election), Christie was +34. In the rural south, Obama had won Gloucester and Salem counties easily. A year later, they went for Christie. In heavily industrialized Passaic County, Obama had won by 21 points; Christie came within 8.
Which leaves Massachusetts. There were no exit polls for the January special election. One approximation comes from a Public Policy Polling survey conducted a few days before the election, which concluded with Scott Brown ahead by 5 points. Brown was +12 among white voters (Obama had been +20), and the poll suggested that Brown did very well among middle-aged voters: He was +14 among those age 30 to 44 and +3 from age 45 to 64. Among these groups Obama had been +18 and +20. The town and county results tell the same story. Plymouth and Worcester counties are two ethnic, blue-collar strongholds that went heavily for Clinton in the primaries, by 21 and 25 points, respectively. Brown won them by similar margins: +26 in Plymouth and +23 in Worcester.
Caveats abound, of course. This is an exercise in apples and oranges, comparing Democratic primary voters with general election voters. It artificially claims three distinct Democratic candidates as generic proxies for Obama—and even uses a preelection poll sample in lieu of actual exit poll data. This can’t count for science, even on the Internet.
But if we accept that the comparisons are at least marginally valid, then Obama is not encountering some new, unanticipated resistance from the electorate. Instead, it may be that his general election triumph was the aberration—that his coalition was never as strong as the financial panic of September 2008 made it seem. It would mean that he is now returning to his natural base of support and that the Jacksonians and others who resisted him in the primaries have turned away once again from his charms.
But it also suggests something more, that the Democratic party is now the party of Obama, for good and for ill. While the president is no Jacksonian, his party has many in its ranks. Democratic officeholders should be concerned about their voters fleeing not just from Obama but from their party as well. The president may be in the process of trimming the Democratic base back into something that looks an awful lot like his own primary base.
A few weeks ago Representative Marion Berry, a Jacksonian from Arkansas’s First District, recounted an exchange he had with the president. Asked how he was going to prevent a midterm disaster on the scale of 1994, Obama replied, “Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.” Which may be precisely the problem.
Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.