Across a series of news articles (e.g., this story by Jackie Calmes and Mark Landler and this one by Jim Rutenberg), blog posts (e.g., this piece by Thomas Edsall and this one by Josh Kraushaar), and analyses (e.g., this paper by Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers), it has become clear how Team Obama sees a path to reelection.
Essentially, it all comes down to three big goals:
1. Do as well with the non-white vote as Obama did in 2008, with the expectation that it continues to increase as a share of the total electorate.
2. Hold steady with upscale white voters, who tend to be more focused on quality of life issues like environmentalism.
3. Mitigate losses among the white working class, but expect to lose this group once again.
So this would be a path to 270 electoral votes that might include Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia (which historically have been Republican) but not Ohio (a quadrennial swing state) or even Pennsylvania (which historically has been Democratic).
Is this a feasible approach?
At this point, it's not likely. I could go on at length about all of its problems, but let’s just look at the three biggest dilemmas I see.
1. Obama still needs the “white working class.” Josh Kraushaar made a good point earlier this month when he discussed the Obama administration’s decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline:
The administration’s decision to cater to environmentalists by postponing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline is a clear sign of the dilemma. The president decided to punt on a job stimulus measure in order to placate parts of the coalition that elected him in 2008. Environmental sensitivities took precedence over job creation.
The problem with this approach is that the white working class is more essential to the Obama coalition than one might think. To appreciate this, consider the following chart, which identifies the percent of Obama’s voting coalition that was white working class (defined here as whites without a college degree) in the Midwestern swing states.
It should be clear from this that the New Deal coalition is still hanging around, at least in parts of the country. In some states – like California and Virginia – we see a “new” Democratic coalition of racial and ethnic minorities plus upscale white moderates. However, roughly half of Obama’s voters in the key Midwestern swing states were in the white working class.
In other words, Democrats still win the Midwest – and therefore the presidency – via the old FDR/Truman/LBJ model, so Obama cannot afford to lose these key voters.
At the moment, Obama is doing terrible with this demographic. This is from Rasmussen Reports:
As a point of comparison, Obama won about 40 percent of the vote between these two groups in 2008. If he had won only 32 or 34 percent of them that year, he would have lost the presidency to John McCain.
2. Hispanics are not secure. I’ve pointed out before that “emerging Democratic majority” theorists (like Teixeira) make a category error when they talk about Democratic strength among “non-white” voters. There are important differences within this overly-broad category.
African Americans are loyally Democratic, in that they back the party in roughly the same numbers through thick and thin. “Non-white” voters who are not African American – e.g. Asians and Hispanics – do not behave in this manner. They are, rather, swing groups that have a Democratic tilt. In other words, the Democratic share of this group goes up and down, depending on the party’s overall position in the country:
As we can see, in good GOP years (e.g. 1988) or neutral years (e.g. 2000 and 2004), Republicans can win up to two-fifths of this bloc, while in bad years (e.g. 1992 and 2008) it struggles even to get to a third.
As 2012 is shaping up to be, at best, a neutral year, Democrats shouldn’t bank on doing as well with these voters as they did in 2008. In fact, Obama’s standing with Hispanics is quite tenuous at the moment, as the Gallup poll indicates:
Notice how Hispanics move with the general population while African Americans stand roughly still. That’s what I mean when I say that Hispanics are a swing group with a pro-Democratic tilt.
3. Obama has trouble with the affluent, too. This is how Thomas Edsall described the priorities of upscale whites who typically vote Democratic:
The better-off wing…puts at the top of its political agenda a cluster of rights related to self-expression, the environment, demilitarization, and, importantly, freedom from repressive norms — governing both sexual behavior and women’s role in society — that are promoted by the conservative movement.
These sorts of voters are not new to the Democratic coalition. We can see the first indications of this group during the 1952 and 1956 candidacies of Adlai Stevenson, the 1968 Gene McCarthy campaign, and even the 1972 George McGovern campaign. The environmentalist, feminist, and consumer rights movements all sprang up from this liberal subset of the middle class, which was more focused on quality of life issues than the material concerns of the farmer-laborer coalition that Woodrow Wilson, FDR and Harry Truman built.
Clinton in 1996 expanded on the core liberal bloc by bringing in the socially moderate voters in traditional GOP bastions like the suburbs of Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia.
Again, it’s presumptuous to factor in such strong Democratic hauls with upscale whites in 2012. We have to bear in mind the broader context, which is that these middle class voters have had the luxury of focusing on cultural issues and quality of life concerns for the last half-century because of the fantastic growth of the American economy. Standard of living issues did not resonate as much with them because year-in, year-out their material welfare kept improving.
However, in recent years, economic growth has slowed noticeably. The following graph depicts this by tracking the 10-year growth rate of real GDP per capita from 1952 through 2011.
Notice how growth begins to take off in the mid-1960s, which not coincidentally corresponds with the rise of this affluent left wing. In the 1990s, social moderates in the middle class began trending toward the Democratic party, in no small part because of economic growth during the Clinton administration.
But in the last five years that growth has slowed substantially. Nowadays, your average professional class Democratic-leaner can no longer count on an ever-rising level of comfort, and thus does not have the luxury of privileging “self-expression” over standards of living.
Indeed, this economic slowdown has hit these upscale suburbanites square in the jaw. They tend not to be unemployed, but their home values are down almost 20 percent from the peak (and show no signs of rebounding) and they are still in the midst of a massive de-leveraging.
Unsurprisingly, Obama is doing very poorly with them at the moment:
As a point of comparison, the president lost this group by only 4 points to John McCain in 2008. If the election were held today, he’d probably lose it by 20 points.
This suggests that Obama’s decision to kill the Keystone Pipeline isn’t going to help him with these voters, at least the non-activists among them. After all, it is a kind of indulgence to worry about the environment, one that these voters really can't afford these days – not when their wages are flat, their houses are underwater, the price of the kids’ college tuition is going up and away, and it costs $50 every week to fill up the Ford Explorer.
Obama can keep the core leftwing of this group – the environmentalists, feminists, and so on who have been diehard Democrats for generations – but these numbers show that he’s struggling with those moderates Clinton brought on board in the mid-1990s.
All in all, I’d suggest that if the election were held today, and the GOP nominated a reasonably attractive candidate, Obama would pull far too few of any of these voters to win a second term. He needs a noticeable uptick in the state of the union to stand a chance, as right now his numbers are just too weak. Barring that and/or a fumble by the Republicans, I see no path to reelection for this president.