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Is Obama Alienating Rich Voters?

Affluent voters were an important element of Obama’s coalition in 2008. Will that change this year? Some observers believe that Obama might alienate former supporters with attacks on Bain Capital and renewed calls to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. While the assumption that these tactics would alienate upscale voters is superficially appealing, most polls tell a different story.

Voters from households making more than $100,000 year were an important part of Obama’s coalition; especially in the “new coalition” states where Obama primarily drew support from well-educated suburbs and minority voters. In some states, one-third of Obama’s supporters came from affluent households and meaningful losses among these voters would endanger Obama’s chances.

But while a business person with a history of moderate social views might seem like a good candidate for affluent, educated suburbanites, polls show that Obama continues to maintain elevated levels of support among voters from households making more than $100k/year. While some might be tempted to discount the polls, the behavior of the campaigns confirms that the polls are right. Obama hasn't even spent one million dollars on advertising in the critical Washington media market and they haven't spent a single dollar in Philadelphia. The Romney campaign has made a similar choice: They've spent nothing in either market. Now, Washington and Philadelphia are inefficient markets: Dollars are wasted in Maryland, D.C., and New Jersey, but Obama has spent more than one million on Davenport, Iowa—a highly inefficient market where resources are wasted on Obama's homestate. If the campaigns thought Virginia and Pennsylvania would be decided by affluent suburbanites, they would be airing at least a few advertisements.

Even optimists about Obama’s chances might be surprised by Obama’s resilience. The Obama Administration has pursued a relatively populist policy agenda and many of those efforts, as well as the decision to table the debt commission proposal, would seem likely to alienate culturally moderate but fiscally conservative suburban voters. Even if Obama’s policy decisions were consistent with the predilections of affluent suburbanites, one might still expect Obama to be faring worse than in 2008, when a highly advantageous political climate bolstered Obama’s standing. Although well-educated and more affluent voters are more likely to be partisans, there are plenty of well-off Bush-Obama voters who ought to be persuadable. 

So how is Obama defying conventional wisdom? Part of the issue is that high income voters might be less conservative on economic questions than self-interest suggests. Take today’s Quinnipiac poll of Virginia. It was a bad poll for Obama, but the President still earned 44 percent among those making more than $100,000 a year, down just slightly from 46 percent four years ago. But as strong as the President might appear among affluent voters, he’s less popular than his own proposal to raise taxes on precisely those voters. According to the same poll, 62 percent of voters making between $100-250,000/year support Obama’s tax plan and so do 48 percent of voters making more than $250,000/year. In 2008, Obama only received 47 percent of Virginia voters making more than $200,000/year.

Another possibility is that higher economic confidence translates to sustained support for the President. While I’m not aware of any poll that disaggregates economic confidence by education or income, wealthier voters might maintain higher levels of economic confidence, since the recession has disproportionately hurt the working class. The unemployment rate among high school graduates is twice that of college graduates, and many professional workers enjoy high levels of job security. Voters insulated from the economy might be more likely to vote on social issues or personal appeal—areas where the President holds an advantage over Romney.

Could Obama’s efforts eventually backfire? Certainly. Obama’s more affluent version of the Democratic coalition is holding firm, at least for now. But if upscale voters are more amenable to tax increases than the conventional wisdom might suggest, then Obama might just be able to appeal to working class voters without risking a backlash among educated suburbanites critical to his chances in Colorado, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire.

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