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.”