Eight years ago, John Kerry won 41 percent of the white vote and lost to President Bush by nearly three points. If Obama wins 41 percent of white voters in 2012, he'll win reelection thanks to an increasingly diverse country where non-white voters will represent roughly one-quarter of the electorate and cast roughly 80 percent of their ballots for the president. In September, President Obama held 41 percent of the white vote and that was enough for 49-plus percent of the vote and a four-point lead, even as polls found deflated enthusiasm among the young and Latino voters necessary for Obama to capitalize on favorable demographic trends. And if Obama’s vaunted ground operation or late gains in enthusiasm could rejuvenate non-white turnout rates to ’08 levels, Obama could afford to win as few as 38 percent of white voters and squeak out a narrow victory.
But since the first presidential debate, Obama’s support among white voters has fallen beneath the range consistent with reelection, even if minorities vote at the same rate that they did four years ago. An average of recent polls shows Obama holding 37.9 percent of white voters—and in 2008, poll internals tended to underestimate McCain's lead among white voters, at least compared to the exit polls. A combination of low enthusiasm and low support among Democratic-leaning independent voters are responsible for much of Obama’s decline, and polls suggest that a disproportionate share of them are whites without a college degree or Northeasterners. For Romney to maintain or grow his lead among white voters, these voters will either need to stay home or cast votes for the Republican.
In the modern political era, it has taken extraordinary circumstances for Democrats to perform so poorly. The last Democratic candidate to fall so low was Walter Mondale, who only won 35 percent of the white vote in 1984. Even Michael Dukakis won 40 percent of the white vote in 1988. In 2010, House Democrats only won 37 percent of the white vote—the lowest tally for any party since the 1820s. Those blowouts resulted in 400 or 500 electoral vote landslides and a historic 63-seat gain in the House, but in 2012 it would only provide Romney with a narrow victory, since the non-white share of the electorate promises to be higher than it was in any of those contests.
Given the state of the economy, high Republican enthusiasm, and Obama’s low approval ratings, the 2012 election could see an extraordinary GOP performance among white voters. But there is a reason why flawed candidates like Dukakis and Kerry managed to reach 40 percent of the vote, or why Mondale still received 35 percent: such weak performances require Democrats to lose voters who traditionally vote for Democratic candidates. From a certain perspective, the traditional Democratic-lean of the remaining voters on Obama’s path to victory provides reason to believe that they might return to his side over the final 15 days of the campaign. This helps explain Romney’s relentlessly moderate approach in the debates, since his path to victory essentially requires him to win Kerry voters. It also explains why Obama feels comfortable pushing progressive social issues.
The fact that Obama remains at such low levels among white voters with two weeks remaining illustrates the importance of minority and youth turnout (they're intertwined) to Obama's chance to win the national popular vote. Nearly half of Obama's '08 margin of victory was due to increased black turnout and support, and he'll need another strong showing to overcome a huge deficit among white voters. Of course, surveys show a tight race--precisely because most anticipate minorities will constitute a much higher share of the electorate than they did in 2004 and vote for Obama by an overwhelming margin.
But the polls do not anticipate strong Latino turnout and Obama can make up ground if his ground game can upset expectations. Incredibly, polls suggest that Obama might do better among Latino voters than he did in 2008.There probably isn't anything the Republicans could have done to significantly improve their standing among black voters so long as they faced Obama, but there are plenty of Latino swing voters and 40 percent voted for Bush in 2004. If Romney makes a comeback in Ohio and Obama regenerates Latino turnout and wins Latino voters by as much or more than he did in '08 in states like Colorado, Nevada, or Florida, there's a chance we look back on the Republican decision to oppose comprehensive immigration reform (not to mention the DREAM Act) as the moment that ultimately cost them the 2012 election.