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Obama’s White Working Class Problem, and Ours

As has been widely noted, Obama’s weakest voter group by far is the white working class. That is true today as it was true in the 2008 election, when Obama lost white working class voters by 18 points, but white college graduates by only 4 points. (The closer you look at the numbers from 2008, the starker Obama’s problem with this demographic reveals itself to be: It is true, for example, that the white union vote overall was slightly Democratic (52-47), but that figure conceals that fact that Obama actually lost the unionized white working class (46-52) while carrying unionized white college graduates by a solid 58-41.)

Huge deficits among these same voters routed the Democrats in 2010.  And Obama appears to be weaker among this group today than he was back in 2008.  Yet Obama is running ahead consistently in the national and swing state polls. Why is the Obama coalition not yet succumbing to its clear Achilles’ heel?

There are two reasons. The first is that the rest of Obama’s coalition has held up so well. The minority vote looks rock solid for Obama, coming very close to the 80 percent support level he received in 2008. This is due to overwhelming backing from black voters plus support among Hispanic voters that meets or exceeds 2008 levels. In addition, judging from eligible voter trends, minorities should be a larger share of voters in 2012 than 2008. Also, Obama may have actually gained ground among college-educated whites. In Pew polls, this group is averaging around a 2 point deficit for Obama, compared to 4 points in 2008.

This gives Obama a considerable buffer against expected weakness among white noncollege voters. Indeed, if the minority and white college-educated vote hold up as well in November as they have in recent polling, Romney needs to generate a huge margin among white working class voters to have a decent chance of winning—closer to the 30 points Congressional Republicans won this group by in 2010 than the 18 point margin received by John McCain in 2008.

That brings us to the other reason Obama has been ahead so consistently in the polls. Romney has not been remotely close to that level of support among white working class voters. He’s been averaging around the same margin McCain received in ‘08 with occasional readings as high as 23 points. Even the latter margin is far off what he will need to win, given the size and leanings of the rest of the electorate.

The same story can be seen in swing states. Obama is typically holding his minority support and doing as well as or better than he did in 2008 among white college graduate voters, while Romney is conspicuously failing to generate the gaudy margins he needs among white working class voters to carry these states.

Why hasn’t Romney been able to do better among these voters, given that they are Obama’s greatest weakness, that they surged toward the GOP in 2010 and that are surely impacted by the continued bad economy? One reason is that the economy, while still poor, has gotten better and that may have taken the edge off of these voters’ anger. Another is that Romney himself, by dint of both his awkward personality and background as a private equity tycoon, is a less than ideal messenger to these voters, as the Obama campaign has so successfully emphasized in their negative ads. He had trouble connecting to white working class voters within the Republican primary electorate and those difficulties have carried over to the general election context.

Surprisingly, Romney has now selected Paul Ryan as his running mate which seems unlikely to enhance his standing with these voters. White working class voters may not have warm feelings about government and they do tend to favor the general idea of cutting government spending. But that does not mean they support the specific steps Ryan has called for in his budget documents. They are particularly leery of his proposal to transform Medicare. In a March United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll, respondents were given two options for the program: “Medicare should be changed to a system where the government provides seniors with a fixed sum of money they could use either to purchase private health insurance or to pay the cost of remaining in the current Medicare program;” or “Medicare should continue as it is today, with the government providing health insurance and paying doctors and hospitals directly for the services they provide to seniors.” Among non-college whites, 63 percent said they preferred the current system, compared to only 26 percent who backed Ryan’s approach. It seems unlikely that accusing Obama of being soft on welfare, as the Romney campaign has done, will be able to counter these negative sentiments about transforming Medicare.

So Obama seems well-positioned to keep his deficit among working class whites down to a level compatible with his re-election. Does that mean he has solved his greatest political problem? No, most obviously because the election is still two and a half months away and it is possible his position among this group might deteriorate in the intervening period.

Less obvious, but just as important, even if Obama keeps his deficit among white working class voters low enough to get re-elected--and “low enough” can mean 20 or even 25 points—he will still confront the lack of support that deficit represents. That lack of support will cripple his efforts to enact an ambitious agenda that involves investment in infrastructure, promoting the transition to clean energy and upgrading the educational system with significant spending frontloaded to jumpstart economic growth. As long as white working class voters resist this level of activist government, Obama and the Democrats will be deprived of the stable majority support they need around the country and within Congress to implement such programs. They will have what I call “the Krugman problem.” That is, there will be no overlap between the set of policies that seem politically feasible and the set of policies that might actually work (i.e., promote growth and reduce unemployment).

The only way out of the Krugman problem for Obama is to develop some real support among the white working class for an activist agenda. These voters have to see a positive future for themselves in this agenda, a vision that jolts them out of their current despair about their economic trajectory and that of their children. They are, as journalist Ron Brownstein has dubbed them, “the most pessimistic group in America.” Until Obama can turn some of that pessimism into optimism, his greatest political problem, even he gets re-elected, will continue to be the white working class.