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Professionals, Millennials, Blue Collar Workers: Why Obama Doesn’t Need To Choose

My new report with John Halpin, “The Path to 270: Demographics Versus Economics in the 2012 Presidential Election,” has generated a lot of comment, much of which focuses on the alleged need for the Obama campaign to “abandon” the white working class and embrace a coalition based on emerging demographics like minorities, Millennials, single women, and college graduates. Or to forget about trying to win in states like Ohio and put their chips on states like Virginia, Colorado, and North Carolina. 

But this more reflects what commenters wish to believe about the Obama campaign than what the report actually says. In reality, we do not argue that the Obama campaign needs to choose between, say, white working class and white college graduate voters, or between states like Ohio and Virginia. These are false choices. 

The data in the report show why this is so. Take white working class voters. We note in the report that this demographic is declining as a share of voters and that, given the typically poor performance of Democratic presidents among this group, this ongoing demographic decline should benefit Obama. It also means that Obama can win the presidency with a larger deficit among these voters than prior Democratic campaigns, including his own victory in 2008. This is a simple recognition of electoral reality, not a call to “abandon” these voters. In fact, given the political proclivities of these voters and the current economic situation, Obama will have to fight hard to keep his deficit with this group at manageable levels (say, in the low twenties). This means Obama should pay a lot of attention to these voters and I predict that he will. 

But if he does so, does that mean he will have to abandon white college graduate voters or minorities? This is equally silly. Even if Obama is able to keep his deficit with white working class voters within a reasonable margin, he will still need to avoid substantial slippage among white college graduate voters and generate strong support among minority voters. 

The best way to illustrate these false choices is to look at specific states, which brings us to the Mother of All False Choices: Ohio or Virginia? Let’s start with Ohio. In 2008, Obama lost white working class voters by 10 points. He obviously wants and needs that number not to collapse. But—less widely appreciated, I think—he achieved about an even split among white college graduate voters. He will also need these voters in large numbers to take the state. It’s not either/or.

Much the same thing could be said about Pennsylvania. Obama lost white working class voters by 15 points but won white college graduate voters by 5 points. So he needs to prevent his white working class support from collapsing in the state but also keep white college graduates in the fold. And in both states, minority support (83 percent and 86 percent, respectively, in 2008) must remain strong.

Moving over to Virginia, supposedly the other side of the president’s strategic choice, Obama actually did worse among white college graduates (losing them by 11 points) than in either Ohio or Pennsylvania. And he did very poorly among white working class voters, losing them by 34 points. But he got 83 percent support from minorities, who should be about a third of voters in 2012. The recipe for Obama campaign success is therefore pretty much the same: Avoid further collapse in the white working class vote, turn out and motivate minorities, and keep that relatively good performance among white college graduate voters.

Or take Colorado. Here Obama did better among white college graduate voters in 2008, carrying them by 14 points, but he also did better among white working class voters, losing them by only 15 points. As important as white college graduate voters are in the state, he can’t let the latter number get away from him either. And he needs to keep or expand his 64 percent support among Colorado’s primarily Hispanic minority voters. 

Obama’s formula for success, in other words, is quite similar everywhere, even if the weights of the different groups vary across states and are changing over time, as discussed in the report. In no state is the weight of a given group so small that it can be effectively ignored in electoral strategy. And, as the Obama campaign well knows, a lost white working class vote hurts you just as much as a lost white college graduate or minority vote. A vote is a vote is a vote.

The same might be said of electoral votes. The loss of an EV from Ohio hurts just as much as the loss of an EV from Virginia. Some argue that the Obama campaign, looking at analyses like our report, are ignoring or will ignore a state like Ohio for a state like Virginia, where demographic change is running more in their favor. I see no evidence that they are doing so. In fact, by taking states like Virginia and Colorado seriously they are sensibly trying to set in place several alternative routes to victory. Not to do so would be political malpractice.  

The question then becomes: Will Obama be able to adopt an approach that can maximize appeal to white working class, white college graduate, and minority voters, all of whom he will need in adequate numbers in these various states to achieve victory? It is too early, of course, to know the exact parameters of the campaign’s approach, but some basic elements can be discerned. Obama will seek to improve the economy in any way he can, even as he puts as much blame for the bad economy as he can on the GOP through legislative confrontation. He will stress that they would rather preserve (and extend) tax cuts for the wealthy than help create jobs or preserve tax cuts for the 99 percent. He will point out that they are determined to end Medicare as we know it, cut Social Security, and do as much as possible to dismantle virtually every other popular social program. And he will highlight the extreme positions of the GOP in a variety of different areas where their anti-government, anti-union, and anti-regulation biases take them far from the comfort zone of most voters. 

Not bad for an opening bid. And it should play well in both Ohio and Virginia, and across target states and demographic groups. False choices, get thee hence!

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