Obama’s weakest group among whites in national polling is noncollege white men, who gave him only 39 percent of their votes last time. He is polling at that level or lower again, and in the recent round of state surveys, he draws only 40 percent or fewer of these men in every state except Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Likewise, the recent national surveys generally find Obama running slightly below the 43 percent he won in 2008 among college-educated white men. In most of the battleground states (including Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia), the polls show the president coming in around 40 percent with them; he’s running best with them in Iowa and Wisconsin.
The biggest divergence between these battleground-state polls and national surveys is Obama’s performance among white women without a college education. These women have tilted Republican in every presidential election since 1980 except 1996, and in 2008, Obama won only 41 percent of them. The three recent national surveys showed Obama attracting between 35 percent (Heartland Monitor) and 44 percent (Pew) of their votes.
But in the battleground states, especially in the Midwest, Obama’s performance is stronger. Among these women, the state-level polls show Obama drawing 46 percent in Michigan, 48 percent in Florida, 49 percent in Nevada, 50 percent in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, 51 percent in Pennsylvania, and 52 percent in Ohio and Iowa. Obama still lags badly among them only in North Carolina and Virginia, where many blue-collar whites are also evangelical Christians, and to a lesser extent Colorado.
Beyond the opposition’s portrayal of Romney as obtuse to the problems of working families, both sides agree that he has been hurt among blue-collar white women by the skirmishes over defunding Planned Parenthood and access to contraception in health insurance. Many of these women view such women’s-health matters not as moral issues but as practical pocketbook concerns. The combined effect of all this is measured in the most recent CBS News/New York Times/Quinnipiac survey in Ohio, which found that while about three-fifths of noncollege white women agreed that Obama “cares about the needs and problems of people like you,” roughly an equal number of them said Romney did not.
Both campaigns agree the Democratic ads have damaged Romney much more with blue-collar women than blue-collar men. But both sides also agree that these women are the least stable component of Obama’s emerging coalition. “I still say the noncollege white women are the moving piece of the electorate,” Garin said. “But Romney is an imperfect vessel for them to say the least.”
Republican pollster Alex Bratty has spent several months conducting focus groups of “Walmart moms”—women who regularly shop at the giant discount chain. That group extends beyond blue-collar white women but includes many of them. Bratty says the women in her groups are grappling with a choice that leaves many profoundly ambivalent.
“President Obama, they are dissatisfied with the performance, but they do relate to him on a personal level,” she said. “For Mitt Romney, the professional résumé is there … but he’s not as personable, or relatable, to them.” While Romney’s wealth is clearly an issue for some of these voters, she said, Obama’s position is still precarious because “they are not happy with how things have gone and they are very uncertain about continuing down that path.”
Convincing more working-class white women to reassess their tentative choice of Obama may be Romney’s most urgent task in the presidential debates that begin this week. “That is the key group that has to move first,” acknowledges the GOP strategist. These battleground-state trends show why.