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President Obama, Culture Warrior

Eight years ago, an embattled incumbent president overcame mediocre approval ratings by dividing the electorate along cultural lines and attacking an unnatural politician from Massachusetts as a wealthy elitist. Today, Obama’s reelection strategy is startlingly reminiscent of George W. Bush’s. As an example, take the Obama campaign's response to Mitt Romney's vice-presidential pick: While everyone expected Obama to attack Ryan on Medicare, attacks on Ryan's abortion stance went on the airwaves at the same time.

What's changed over the past eight years that's allowed the culture war to be turned on its head? On an issue like gay marriage, changing public views is part of the issue. But more broadly, Democrats are benefiting in the cultural war from Obama’s ability to ensure the allegiance of socially conservative non-white voters, and they’re taking advantage by going on the offensive. 

When Bush attempted to appeal to social conservatives, he wasn’t just appealing to white evangelicals. He was also appealing to a large number of socially conservative minorities who often support Democrats in national elections. While 91 percent of African Americans voted for Gore in 2000, just 24 percent consider themselves liberal according to a recent Gallup poll. Indeed, 29 percent of African Americans consider themselves conservative, and many of these cross-pressured voters disagree with the national Democratic Party’s stance on cultural issues. Similarly, a large number of culturally conservative Latino voters have traditionally supported the Democratic Party, and the Bush campaign was determined to appeal to them too, not only by stressing conservative social values, but also by emphasizing education and a moderate immigration policy.

As a result, Bush made gains among Latinos and African American voters. Kerry performed a net-four points worse among black voters than Gore did four years earlier, and even worse among Latino voters. Although disputes over the exit polls prevent an authoritative account of just how poorly Kerry did among Hispanics, the final exit polls suggested that Bush won 40 or 44 percent of Latino voters, up from 2000. As a result, Bush won Florida by 5 points, instead of 5 Supreme Court votes, and he flipped New Mexico into the red column.

Eight years later, Republicans are far removed from their mid-decade peak among minority voters. Immigration policy appears to have played a role in driving the swing Latino voters out of the Republican fold, even after a recession felt hard in Latino communities. Obama’s historic candidacy has given Democrats an unprecedented advantage among African American voters. These gains among minority voters appear likely to endure in 2012, with Obama already near the 67 percent of Latino voters that he won in 2008. While Obama isn’t assured of winning 67 percent of Latino voters and 95 percent of African Americans, he’s all but assured to finish far above Kerry’s tallies with both groups.

At the same time, non-white voters constitute a larger share of the electorate than they did in 2004, increasing from 23 to 26 percent of the electorate over the intervening four years. Obama’s resilient gains among non-white voters have combined with their growing share of the electorate to lower Obama’s burden among white voters to historically low levels. Obama could conceivably win 38 percent of the white vote and still prevail nationally. In contrast, Kerry won 40 percent of white voters in 2004, but he lost by three: If Obama repeated Kerry’s performance and won 40 percent of white voters in 2012, he’ll probably win. 

As a result, the old culture war calculus has flipped from favoring Republicans to Democrats. If Obama can hold conservative minority voters, then Obama could win the election by simply by doing as well as Kerry did among white voters in 2004. One way to do that? Re-run the debates that dominated the 2004 campaign, like gay marriage and tax cuts for the wealthy. And that appears to be the Obama campaign’s choice, even while adding new issues like contraception, where Democrats are on even safer ground than they are on gay marriage. Here’s a different way to frame the issue: gay marriage is more popular among white voters than Obama, so he stands to make gains among those voters. Now, it’s not exactly this simple. Obama has suffered losses among white voters without a college degree and many of them supported Kerry in 2004. But Obama is doing better among college-educated voters than Kerry did, and that makes it even easier for Obama to pursue progressive social positions. Now supporting gay marriage reinforces a larger number of college educated white Obama supporters, and alienates fewer white working class Obama supporters.

The Romney campaign appears to have made a similar calculation: at the moment, there aren’t advertisements about gay marriage, even in North Carolina, where gay marriage was soundly defeated just a few months ago. Why? The Obama voters opposed to gay marriage are generally, although hardly exclusively, African American. The Romney campaign probably shouldn’t waste it’s time appealing to that particular voting bloc, especially since there are plenty of moderate Republicans who support gay marriage in North Carolina’s better educated metropolitan areas. If the Romney campaign gets desperate, they might try and use gay marriage to rebuild their support among socially conservative working class voters skeptical of outsourcing, Bain, and Romney’s tax returns. But gay marriage probably doesn’t have a role to play in a close election—no side clearly benefits.

With Obama all but assured an overwhelming share of the non-white vote, Democrats have free-reign to pursue more liberal stances on social issues. While in the past, such a stance would risk alienating socially conservative minorities and white working class voters, Obama’s identity and immigration policy all but ensures elevated levels of support among African Americans and Latinos, while Obama’s lesser burden among white working class voters paradoxically allows Obama to pursue policies opposed by a majority of white working class voters.