In physics, every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. President Obama could learn a lesson from Sir Isaac Newton and understand that while his policies promoting fairness may poll well in a vacuum, they could strike at the heart of the upscale, well-educated group of supporters who fueled his victory four years ago.
It’s easy to forget, now that Obama is preaching a populist message on the campaign trail, that a major part of his support came from the very 1 percent that he’s now calling on to pay their fair share in taxes. Obama carried the super-wealthy—those making $200,000 or more a year—with 52 percent of the vote, 17 points more than John Kerry won in 2004. But now surveys show Obama losing significant ground with affluent voters, trailing Romney 49 percent to 43 percent among those making $100,000 or more in the latest Quinnipiac poll—his worst showing among any economic demographic.
The struggles have extended to the fundraising front, where visions of an Obama juggernaut have fallen far short of expectations, thanks to weaker-than-expected donations from Wall Street donors and bundlers, whose enthusiasm toward the president has cooled over the last four years. The populist rhetoric, along with the Dodd-Frank legislation cracking down on the financial industry, are major factors why the Obama campaign is behind its 2008 fundraising pace.
Take a look at Washington Capitals vice-chairman Raul Fernandez, who donated $30,000 to the president’s campaign in 2008, for a sign of how things have changed. The former Obama backer told The Washington Post that he would be voting for “anybody but Obama” and suggested the president’s fairness rhetoric smacked of anti-Americanism. “They paint it with one big brush,” Fernandez told the paper. “They are truly trying to make it evil.”
At a time of economic turmoil, one might not be predisposed to shed a tear for a multimillionaire sports team owner, but his sentiments are shared by a large chunk of the upper class that make up a key constituency in several crucial battleground states. Take Virginia, with its Democratic-leaning, wealthy entrepreneurial class in the D.C. suburbs. Over one-third of Virginia voters make more than $100,000 a year, and 7 percent make more than $200,000 a year. That’s not a trivial demographic; the state’s wealthiest voters make up a larger share than its Latino voters.
Meanwhile in Colorado, the $200,000-and-over demographic made up 8 percent of the electorate in 2008, and Obama comfortably carried this group by a double-digit margin. That was a huge swing from 2004, when George W. Bush carried that same demographic, getting a whopping 66 percent of the vote. With only Kerry’s level of support from the “top 1 percent,” Obama probably would lose Colorado.
This isn’t news to the White House, which has publicly made a big deal about the president’s path to reelection running through well-educated, affluent states with high minority populations, such as Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, and Nevada. The high minority turnout gives Obama, even if he’s struggling in the polls, a decent floor to work with, and upscale white voters would push him over the top. It’s why the president made such a big deal about working to pass entitlement reform, tax-code reform, and spending cuts after the Democratic shellacking in the 2010 midterms—these are issues popular with wealthier voters.
But that message is, for now, entirely passé, as the White House makes an aggressive populist pitch for higher taxes on the wealthy and a vigorous government effort to ensure more economic equality. It’s a message that’s aimed squarely at the working-class voters who have been stubbornly resistant to the president since he first ran for office. Obama won only 40 percent of whites who don’t have a college education in 2008, and last week’s Quinnipiac poll finds he would carry only 32 percent of them against Romney if the election were held today. Even worse, his personal favorability ratings with this group (31 percent favorable/63 percent unfavorable) lag even further behind his job-approval ratings (33 percent favorable/62 percent unfavorable), suggesting the opposition to the president is deep-seated and can’t be fixed with a populist message. Indeed, the numbers suggest that Obama has at least as much to risk by discovering his inner populist as he does to gain by sharpening his overall message.
And even as the rhetoric is designed to boost base turnout, the administration’s newfound populist thinking also may have cost Obama with another key part of his coalition: gay voters. Obama needlessly created a stir by declining to sign an executive order prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation—a surprising move, given that the president has done more to advance gay rights than any past president. Several Democratic strategists familiar with the administration’s thinking said the decision was a result of not wanting to alienate the very blue-collar voters he’s been courting, who may be economically populist but are culturally conservative.
The irony of this presidential campaign is that Obama’s reelection team has become so consumed with Romney’s wealth and his obvious vulnerabilities connecting with working-class voters that they’ve lost sight of the coalition that brought him into office in the first place. They could now be engaged in a fruitless chase to capture voters who never supported the president in good times for Democrats and aren’t likely to change their minds in a down economy.
This article appears in the April 25, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.