DOYLESTOWN, Pa.—One summer morning in this suburban Philadelphia town, dozens of suit-clad men and women packed a cozy, stone-walled room at the rear of a local restaurant. After filling their plates with sausage and eggs, the members of this local chamber of commerce listened to—of all things, in this beleaguered economy—a pair of entrepreneurs with a success story to tell.
Proudly displaying the latest issue of a glossy magazine, Bill and Bob Waite explained how they had recently bought the publication, which extols the pleasant, small-town virtues of life in their home of Bucks County. It was a reclamation project for the brothers, who had been forced out by the company that once owned the magazine, as well as a point of pride, because it was once again thriving. The audience of investors, financial planners, and lawyers listened with smiles and applause and then departed for jobs of their own.
That scene of optimism amid a feeble economic recovery could prove pivotal for President Obama’s campaign, and data suggest that it’s more common than the national 8.3 percent unemployment rate indicates. Men and women with college degrees, like most of the people who attend local chamber breakfasts, have weathered the country’s economic storm better than their working-class counterparts. Their unemployment rate, 4.1 percent in June, is half the national average and three times better than the rate for people who didn’t graduate from high school. Life for these Americans, compared with other demographic groups, is the closest facsimile to their prerecession existence. “The college diploma does give people some immunity. It’s not 100 percent, but it does give them some immunity from the worst consequences of the terrible job market,” said Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution.
But there’s a catch. While their insulation from economic pain might predispose college graduates to back the president, Obama’s own campaign might push them away and into Mitt Romney’s open embrace. The president has built his reelection message around the argument that the country’s richest households—those making in excess of $250,000—need to pay more in taxes. He pushes his signature policy proposal in TV ads and at campaign rallies. That group of high earners includes, of course, a great many people who have earned a college degree.
Romney, by comparison, promises to not only protect well-to-do citizens’ interests but to improve their lot. In addition to supporting an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts on household income over $250,000, the former Massachusetts governor has pledged to lighten the wealthy’s tax burden further with a 20 percent reduction of all rates. Empowering the high-earners, the “job-creators,” sits at the center of Romney’s plan to reinvigorate the economy.
“Some people have great wealth, but those are people who also understand people need to pay their fair share.”—Josh Shapiro, Montgomery County, Pa., commissioner
That contrast gives Romney an opening to contend that Obama is targeting the rich, what Republicans call “class warfare.” It’s an argument that might resonate. Thomas Jennings, a lawyer who lives near Doylestown, was one of those well-dressed attendees at the chamber breakfast. Despite calling himself a strong supporter of the president’s, he openly worried that Obama’s agenda could alienate many of the people who sat in the room with him that day. “You don’t want to be attacking people for being successful,” he said. “You have to remind them we’re all in this together.
“I’ve never liked it,” he added. “It’s counterproductive.”
The dizzying swing between the 2008 and 2010 elections is a testament to the importance of winning over college-educated voters. Obama attracted 53 percent of the group four years ago—the same percentage by which he won the overall vote. But the ratio was exactly reversed for his party in 2010, amid a historic wave election, when Republican House candidates won 53 percent of the vote to Democrats’ 45 percent. In 2012, these Americans are key to answering one of the presidential election’s most important questions: Will a group of voters who have better reason than many to trust Obama’s economic stewardship cast their ballot for him even if it cuts against their own interest?
Obama’s ability to attract such voters will manifest itself in his performance in Bucks County and other suburbs. These regions, whether outside Denver or in Northern Virginia, often determine which direction a state will lean on Election Day. Take southeastern Pennsylvania: Bucks County is one of the four “collar counties” around Philadelphia. In 2008, Obama won there by a 200,000-vote margin, a third of his overall margin of victory in the state. But two years later, Republican Pat Toomey essentially broke even in the region as he claimed one of the state’s seats in the Senate.
The Obama campaign acknowledges that many who are wealthy would benefit, at least in their own finances, from a Romney presidency. As the president puts it in one of TV ads, his plan asks the rich “to pay a little more.” A website built by his own campaign—featuring a calculator that allows users to put in their income to illustrate how Obama’s proposals benefit the middle class—defines how much “a little” is. A four-member family that makes $500,000, for instance, would save more than $36,000 annually in taxes under Romney’s plan, according to the presidential campaign’s own calculations. Under Obama, the same family’s saving would be less than $10,000.
“At the end of the day, everyone understands the economy isn’t nearly where it should be.” —Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.
This article appears in the August 25, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.