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The White Working Class: The Group That Will Likely Decide Obama’s Fate

Each election cycle there occurs a tired ritual, in which pundits and reporters rediscover that yes, indeed, there are still a lot of white working class voters in America, and they represent a serious vulnerability for the Democrats. But just this once, let’s skip the period where everyone initially ignores this group and cut straight to the chase: There will be a lot of white working class voters showing up at the polls next November, and the degree to which they support (or abandon) President Obama could very well make or break his reelection.

In 2008, during his otherwise-solid election victory, Obama lost the white working class vote by 18 points. In 2010, however, things got much worse: Congressional Democrats’ experienced a catastrophic 30 point deficit among the same group. While the first number is a figure Obama could live with repeating, the second could very well prove fatal.

Indeed, if Republicans can replicate that 30 point deficit in 2012—a margin which seems increasingly possible given the recent bad news about the economy—Obama will have little to no room for error among his other constituencies. For example, even if, as expected, the share of minority voters increases from 26 to around 28 percent in the next election and Obama receives the typical 75 percent of that vote, while the share of white working class voters declines by another 3 percentage points, a 30 point hole in Obama’s white working class support would mean that the overall support he needs to win the election was teetering right on the knife’s edge. In such a scenario, Obama would have to hold essentially all of his white college graduate support from 2008 (47 percent, a historic high for Democrats) to be assured of victory.

And make no mistake about it, GOP strategy for 2012 will start with the white working class and attempt to drive up support among this group as high as possible. As an example, just take Romney’s recently declared strategy:

Romney advisers see a disconnect between the president’s announcements of real progress on the economy at a time when there is, in the words of one, “a massive disaster out there with people’s lives.” They argue that, on economic issues, Obama still has trouble connecting with voters, particularly those from the white working class.

These tactics are likely to pay big dividends both nationally and, even more importantly, in the states where the election is actually decided. Consider the case of Ohio, a state the GOP must take back to take down Obama. White working class voters could end up representing as much as 56 percent of Ohio voters in 2012, judging from Census voter supplement data. Anything close to a 30 point deficit in 2012 will almost definitely sink Obama in this state, no matter what happens with the friendlier portions of the Ohio electorate.

Or take Florida, Nevada, and Colorado, other states that are vulnerable to a white working class collapse. Florida’s 29 electoral votes would assure Obama’s re-election, assuming he manages to carry the 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, that Democrats have carried in every presidential election since 1992 (which, together, represent a total of 241 electoral votes). Compared to Ohio, Florida’s white working class is smaller (a projected 42 percent of voters in 2012), but a 30 point deficit would still torpedo Obama’s chances, putting this must-win state for the GOP firmly in their column. Nevada (42 percent white working class in 2012) and Colorado (46 percent), meanwhile, would also be put in serious doubt should Obama’s support among this group crater in 2012.

Even more alarmingly, the white working class vote provides the perfect way for the GOP to drive a wedge into those 241 electoral votes Democrats have held for five straight presidential elections. Contested states with high proportions of white working class voters like Minnesota (60 percent white working class in 2012), Wisconsin (58 percent), Pennsylvania (55 percent), and Michigan (53 percent) could easily be flipped if this group flees from Obama.

But how likely is such a white working class surge toward the GOP in 2012? From the standpoint of Obama and the Democrats, scarily so. It’s important to remember that this is the group that has been the bulwark of every GOP victory going back to Richard Nixon in 1968. And it is the group recently termed by journalist Ronald Brownstein as, “[T]he most pessimistic group in America.” In a recent Pew Economic Mobility Project poll, only one-third of working class whites thought today’s children would live better than they do, far below the levels of confidence expressed by minorities and college-educated whites. And in a recent National Journal poll, only a third of white working class voters took a positive view of recent Census findings on the country’s fast growing minority population, with 58 percent endorsing instead the pessimistic view that these trends are “happening too quickly,” and undermining fundamental American values at a time of high unemployment.

These views are obviously rooted in the bleak economic situation confronting most members of the white working class. While that’s bad enough, what’s worse is that the economy is showing no signs of the kind of progress that might take the edge off these sentiments. This should worry the Obama team greatly and encourage the so-called “pivot” to the jobs issue that the administration is considering. A deal on debt reduction, however desirable for other reasons, will be no substitute for better economic conditions, especially among this difficult demographic.

To be sure, the good news for Obama is that the level of support he needs from this group of voters is not terribly high. While a 30 point deficit might sink him, he could survive pretty easily on a 23 point deficit, John Kerry’s margin in 2004. That Obama would likely win with this very large deficit, while Kerry lost, indicates just how much the demographics of the country have changed in the 8 years since Kerry’s defeat. But while the bar for Obama may be lower, he still needs to clear it, and at the moment, that’s looking like a real challenge.

Ruy Teixeira is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.