How the rich could save Obama

If conventional wisdom is to be believed, the two biggest mortal foes in U.S. politics are wealthy voters and Barack Obama. After accepting millions of dollars in donations from Wall Street in 2008, the president alienated plutocrats with financial reform and his insistence on raising taxes on people making more than $250,000 per year. Adding to the White House’s supposed political woes, the Republicans nominated a former CEO with a history of moderate social views.

While Democratic candidates traditionally succeed by winning over a sizeable share of white working-class voters, Obama’s 2008 victory was unusually dependent on affluent Americans. Among voters from households making more than $100,000 per year, Obama won 49 percent of the vote—a big improvement over John Kerry’s 41 percent in 2004. Surely, given Obama’s bumpy record with the rich, this couldn’t possibly happen again—right? Actually, it could: Polls show that Obama maintains elevated levels of support among voters from households making more than $100,000 per year. Although Obama has suffered considerable losses since his big victory four years ago, all of those losses have come from middle-class and lower-class income brackets.

What accounts for Obama’s unexpected resilience among the wealthy? One possibility is that high-income voters are less economically conservative than their self-interest would suggest. In a recent Quinnipiac poll of Virginia, Obama was doing well among voters making more than $100,000 per year.In fact, they applauded his proposal to raise taxes on many of them. Attacks on private equity may be upsetting weekenders in the Hamptons, but polls show that Obama is doing almost as well as he did four years ago among upscale New Yorkers.

Another possibility is that economically secure voters are more likely to approve of Obama’s job performance. Assured of prosperity, affluent voters might be more likely to vote on cultural issues or personal appeal—areas where the president holds an advantage over Romney. This explanation is also consistent with Obama’s weakness among low-income voters, since the recession has disproportionately hurt the working class.

If upscale voters are willing to endure tax hikes and assaults on private equity, this might give Obama more freedom to appeal to working-class voters—by, for example, attacking outsourcing and stalling on gun control—without risking a backlash among the educated suburbanites essential to his chances in Colorado and Virginia. The Obama campaign appears to be making that bet--which would mean that far from bringing about his downfall, wealthy Americans may prove to be his secret weapon. 

This article appeared in the August 23, 2012 issue of the magazine.