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It’s Official, Obama’s Trying to Win the West—Not Ohio

When Lyndon Johnson endorsed path-breaking civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s, he knew that he was irrevocably changing the Democratic Party. As he was affixing his signature to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he reportedly remarked to an aide that he was “signing away the South for 50 years.” President Obama’s decision to endorse gay marriage may yield a similar outcome by weakening beyond repair his party’s links with less educated, socially conservative white voters.

(For the record: what follows is a purely political analysis, not a critique of Obama’s decision on the merits. Many years ago, after sustained reflection, I decided that there were no arguments against same-sex marriage that I could regard as compelling, and I’ve publicly stated that conclusion more than once.)

Early last year, I noted that Obama’s political advisors were tilting toward what I called a “Colorado strategy” for the reelection campaign. Their focus was on an emerging new Democratic majority—a coalition of young people, minorities, unmarried women, and upscale professionals. This tilt would come, I noted, at the expense of the “Ohio strategy”—my shorthand for an effort focused on retaining support from white working class voters.

To be sure, this tilt toward Colorado as the electoral template was intended as a matter of emphasis rather than a flat-out rejection of Ohio alternative. After all, Obama won both Colorado-type states and Ohio-type states in 2008. It seemed reasonable to suppose that he could fortify the Party’s new beachhead in the Rockies without jeopardizing his standing in the heartland, the traditional key to presidential contests.

The issue of gay marriage will test that optimism. Consider Ohio. The most recent Quinnipiac survey, conducted before the gay marriage announcement, showed the presidential race tied—Obama 45, Romney 44. (Adding Rob Portman to the Republican ticket moved the race to a dead heat, 45 to 45.) If the prospect of gay marriage antagonizes older conservatives more than it mobilizes younger liberals, Ohio could shift back into the Republican column.

Or take North Carolina, one of the two rim-South states that the 2008 Obama campaign wrested from the Republicans. The state just passed—by 61 to 39 percent—a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage. This suggests that about one-fifth of Obama’s winning 2008 coalition disagrees with him on the issue. It’s hard to know how many of these voters will regard the president’s support for gay marriage as a deal-breaker. But common sense suggests that it is likely to be more than enough to swamp Obama’s 14,000-vote victory of four years ago.

One thing is clear: Obama’s decision aligns the Democratic Party with the demographic future of the country. Young adults overwhelmingly support gay marriage, and they’re sure to win the fight by outliving their older adversaries. The only question is whether the future is now. There’s reason to believe it may not be: In 2008, Obama received 20 percent of the conservative vote, accounting for about 7 percentage points of his overall 53 percent share of the popular vote. (By contrast, McCain received only 10 percent of the liberal vote, accounting for only 2 points of his overall share.) Conservative democrats, in other words, provided the decisive margin in the last election—a margin that it’s not clear can be compensated for with additional liberals.

Ron Brownstein recently reported that “Obama’s senior advisors see the announcement as essentially a political wash,” one that changes the composition of the president’s support but not its overall level. If a single national vote decided presidential elections, this would be a significant claim. But because presidential elections are an aggregate of state contests, the location of support also matters. Alas, as I look at the shrinking roster of swing states, I find it easier to foresee electoral college losses than gains. 

William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution an a contributing editor for The New Republic.