After Barack Obama won his historic victory in 2008, the opportunity to reshape the landscape of American politics glimmered before him and his advisers.
In his ardent, pathbreaking campaign, Obama captured 52.8 percent of the popular vote against John McCain, becoming the only Democratic nominee since World War II other than Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to exceed 50.1 percent. Obama ran best among young people, minorities, and college-educated white women, all groups that were growing in numbers. That “coalition of the ascendant” offered the new president the prospect of a steadily expanding base—even as his dramatic victory provided him the opportunity to court voters dislodged from the Republican coalition by disillusionment with outgoing President Bush. For all of these reasons, the 2008 results allowed Obama’s team to dream, much like the French generals at Verdun, of breaking through a grinding stalemate—in the current case, the rigid and narrow divide that had characterized American politics for the 12 years since Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996.
Four years later, those dreams of realignment have, for now at least, turned to dust. After four grueling years of economic turbulence and partisan conflict, no one in either party expects Obama to consolidate a commanding new majority coalition this fall. Instead, his team is struggling against fierce economic headwinds to marshal a bare majority that relies less on converting ambivalent swing voters than on maximizing turnout and the president’s advantage among his core supporters.
Lifted by economic discontent, Republican contender Mitt Romney is running better in polls this summer than McCain did among the groups that were always the most skeptical of Obama, particularly older and blue-collar white voters, as well as well-educated white men. But Romney, too, has directed his agenda almost entirely at his party’s core supporters. And that has made it easier for Obama to hold his most reliable groups despite the economic anxiety. The net result is an election that today appears on track to more resemble the 50-50 division of Bush’s slim victories in 2000 and 2004 than Obama’s 365-vote Electoral College blitz in 2008. Absent a dramatic late development, small shifts in the preferences or turnout of virtually any group in the electorate could decide this election.
To understand the boundaries and dynamics of this struggle, National Journal has updated a project we conducted in 2008 that examined, in unprecedented depth, the fault lines and cross pressures among American voters. In that initial report (“The Hidden History of the American Electorate,” NJ, 10/18/08, p. 14), we examined the results from the general-election presidential exit polls conducted across the country by a consortium of news organizations from 1988 through 2004. In this update, National Journal adds the results from the 1980, 1984, and 2008 elections to produce an expanded look at the hidden history of the electorate over the past eight presidential elections. (The organizations performing the exit polls have changed over the years; the 2008 survey was conducted by the Edison Media Research/Mitofsky International National Election Pool.)
The calculations were performed on exit-poll data files by Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz for 1980 and 1984; Ruy Teixeira, a public-opinion analyst and author at the Brookings Institution and the Center for American Progress, for 1988 to 2004; and Joe Lenski, executive vice president of Edison Media Research, for 2008. National Journal, however, analyzed the results for each year.
As we noted in 2008, the exit polls allow for finely grained analysis of specific subgroups because they survey such a large sample of voters (17,836 in the 2008 version). Most readers, for instance, are familiar with the gender gap— the tendency of men to vote more reliably Republican than women and women to vote more reliably Democratic than men—or Hispanics’ strong preference for Democrats. But in this report, NJ highlights much more precise trends, such as the differences between college-educated and noncollege-educated white women, and those between Protestant and Catholic Hispanics. In its unique detail, this analysis spotlights both the changes in, and the durability of, the preferences among the key groups in the electorate.
It also shows how shifts in the electorate’s composition have altered the political balance at least as much as have changes in voters’ attitudes. Because of the steady growth of the minority population and Romney’s failure so far to crack those voters, Obama could prevail in November with an 80/40 solution: winning about 80 percent of the vote among minorities and about 40 percent among whites. Yet, hard times could put even that modest showing with whites beyond Obama’s reach. Heading into its final months, the 2012 campaign still looks like a titanic collision between the economy and demography.
This article appears in the September 1, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.