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.
The president, then, is left to argue that his plan would help society as a whole, ultimately benefiting rich voters along with everyone else. Many college graduates already live in areas that are more than holding their own. In May, Bucks County’s unemployment rate was 6.9 percent, more than a percentage point lower than the then-national average of 8.2 percent. Jobless rates are similarly low in other suburban electoral battlegrounds. Franklin County, Ohio, the Columbus-centered home of Ohio State University), for example, had a June unemployment rate of 6.5 percent.
Mark Margraff, who lives in a small Bucks County town, doesn’t hold the typical job of a college graduate; he’s an independent photographer. At first glance, he should be an automatic vote for Romney: The 46-year-old voted for John McCain in 2008, and he had to make extra money at Walmart when cost-cutting families and companies weren’t buying his services. But Margraff says he’s leaning toward voting for Obama because his business, slowly but surely, is growing again, thanks to the strong local economy. “Within the past year and a half, I’ve seen an uptick in people calling me who I haven’t heard from in a while,” he said. “And I’ve had some new clients.” He worries that progress would be “canceled out” if Romney took office and tried to implement a new agenda.
Even if they’ve witnessed or experienced economic pain, some highly educated voters are willing to cut the president more slack. As dean of Bucks County Community College’s science, technology, engineering, and math department, Lisa G. Angelo has watched many of her students struggle to find a job after graduation. The 56-year-old, who holds a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees, has even faced personal hurdles: Her husband has had to put off retirement as they try to sell their home, which has yet to recover its prerecession value.
But Angelo, a Democrat who says she plans to vote for Obama, doesn’t hold him responsible, calling the problem “multifaceted.” “I certainly don’t think he’s responsible for the situation he’s in, not alone,” she said. “It’s a worldwide problem, not just an American problem. There are a lot of places to lay fault.”
Polls indicate that Obama’s tax plan is broadly popular: A United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll in mid-July found that only 26 percent of adults surveyed want to extend the Bush-era tax cuts on incomes above $250,000. Democrats are confident that the popularity of their position extends even into wealthy groups.
“I think some people have great wealth, but those are people who also understand people need to pay their fair share,” said Josh Shapiro, a Democratic commissioner in Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County, one of the state’s wealthiest. “They want to invest in education, infrastructure, and job creation. They know we need responsible policies.”
If not, Obama has also turned to a noneconomic argument to court the more affluent, appealing to their social-issue preferences to keep them on his team. After months of drumming up a narrative that Republicans were waging a “war on women,” the campaign has aired ads in a plethora of battleground states attacking Romney for his stance on abortion rights. On the campaign trail, Obama doesn’t shy from embracing topics that have little to do with voters’ pocketbooks.
“We are not going back to the days when you couldn’t serve the country you love just because of who you love. We ended ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ That was the right thing to do,” the president said at a Northern Virginia campaign event chock-full of college graduates. “We are moving forward. We’re not going to roll back funding for Planned Parenthood ... because I think women should have control over their health care choices just like everybody else does. We’re not going backwards.”
College graduates, who are generally more supportive of abortion rights and gay marriage than noncollege voters, are more likely to care about social issues in the absence of personal economic strain. In effect, Obama gets to broaden his argument against Romney with these voters, pushing the contest onto more favorable ground. “In areas of less economic distress, [other issues] take a larger role,” said Daylin Leach, a state senator who represents part of Montgomery County. “In the absence [of] economic distress, voters here look to social issues, environmental issues, and educational issues.”
That’s potentially problematic for Romney, who has relentlessly stuck to a message that focuses exclusively on the economy. In places such as the Philadelphia suburbs, that’s a necessity for a candidate who has portrayed himself as an ardent opponent of abortion and has promised to strip federal funding for Planned Parenthood. “It’s one of those issues that crosses party lines,” Shapiro said. “There are a significant number of Republicans in the suburbs who consider themselves pro-choice.”
A POTENTIAL OPENING
Even if the relatively sound financial footing of university graduates gives Obama an opening to court their votes, they are far from serene about the state of the national economy or their own personal situations. Romney and his allies are confident that their message accusing Obama of botching the country’s economic recovery will resonate among this group as well as it does among others.
Men and women who have completed college face a dilemma, according to Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute. Yes, they’re faring better in the current economy than others. But they still might lag behind another key comparison point: themselves.
According to Mishel’s data, college graduates have lost income during the past decade. From 2000 to 2011, for instance, median weekly earnings fell by 1.2 percent among people who earned a college degree. From 2007 to 2011 alone, it dropped 1.1 percent. “I don’t think they’re necessarily rebounding any better, from what I see,” he said. “What’s happened over the last 10 years—wages for college graduates and those with high-school degrees—neither groups has seen any improvement in their wages and benefits.”
Their personal finances could also have been hit hard by the housing collapse, particularly in states such as Florida and Nevada where the market remains in crisis. “College graduates between the age of 30 and 50, probably most of their wealth is tied up in his or her house,” said Burtless, the Brookings economist. “So the decline of house prices hurt them.”
Some college-educated voters are quick to point out that they have yet to see signs of a strong recovery. Bucks County’s Art D’Angelo, who helps businesses plan their employee benefits, says that many of the companies he’s worked with have yet to restore benefits to their prerecession level, if they’re offering any at all. He says it’s the same situation with many of the people he talks with; most concur that the economic recovery is weak. “I talk to a lot of people who are struggling,” said D’Angelo, 64, who plans to vote for Romney. “Most people agree we need to do better.”
Another Bucks County Republican, Bob Welch, bemoans the region’s loss of wealth since the crisis. The financial adviser and head of the local chamber says that the real-estate market remains tepid at best and most people remain scared to invest because of the country’s uncertain economic future. “I’d say there’s been little improvement over the last four years here, very little,” said Welch, who added that the change the country needs is a change in the White House.
In a June poll by the Pew Research Center, confidence that the economy will improve during the next year dropped sharply among those who have graduated from college. Just 35 percent said they thought the economy would improve over the next year, a 15-point decline from the survey’s findings in March. It’s a sign that even for those whose jobs have remained relatively secure and whose finances have held up, views of the state of the overall economy remain shaky.
Republican are ready to pounce. That much was evident on a rainy Saturday morning in July as 100 people attended the opening of a Romney headquarters in Montgomery County’s Conshohocken. The event featured Toomey, whose successful courtship of voters in southeast Pennsylvania was critical to his 2010 Senate victory. Even if people are doing well, they understand that many of their fellow citizens are not, Toomey said in an interview with National Journal. “At the end of the day, everyone understands the economy isn’t nearly where it should be, and that’s because of President Obama’s failed policies.”
In effect, Romney is banking that the blunt-force argument about Obama’s responsibility for the economy’s disrepair—one he has stubbornly refused to deviate from regardless of his audience—doesn’t lose potency, even among those who may have the least to lose. For his part, Obama has to hope that a summer of mediocre-at-best economic news is not causing voters with a college degree to lose faith. His support among the group has softened since 2008 but remains relatively solid. A Pew Research Center poll in July found that about half of this group still planned to vote for the president. But if his numbers among that cohort drop much further, states such as Pennsylvania—a must-win for Obama—will become politically problematic. The president must hope that when college grads cast their vote, more than their tax returns will be on their minds.
This article appears in the August 25, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.