It finally dawned on me that white Baby Boomers are the group that is really hurting Barack Obama. Of all people, the generation that brought us the Vietnam War protests and the Summer of Love is proving to be a very tough nut for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee to crack.
First, the context: The political environment
is wretched for Republicans. In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of 1,000 registered voters conducted June 6-9, respondents preferred a Democrat to win the presidency by 16 percentage points, 51 percent versus 35 percent for a Republican. Forty-four percent strongly preferred a Democrat; just 27 percent strongly favored a Republican. By 19 points--52 percent to 33 percent--voters also preferred Democrats to keep control of Congress. In terms of party identification, Democrats had a 9-point advantage, 33 percent to 24 percent. When independents were "pushed," that is, asked which way they were leaning, the Democratic advantage edged up to 10 points, 44 percent to 34 percent. And on a host of issues, Democrats beat out Republicans.
So why does that same poll have Obama leading by just 6 points, 47 percent to 41 percent? In other words, why the drop-off from party identification and the generic presidential and congressional ballot tests? Essentially, why does Obama underperform his party?
At the time this poll was done, not long after Hillary Rodham Clinton dropped out of the race, Obama was taking his victory lap, and most surveys showed him with a similar margin. Since then, most polls have found a bit of a tightening, with Obama's lead around 3 or 4 points. Whether his edge is 3 points or 6 points, the question remains the same: Why the drop-off?
Combing through cross-tabulations of three months of Cook Political Report/RT Strategies polls, taken April 17-20, May 29-31, and June 12-15 and involving a total of 2,484 registered voters (margin of error +/-2 percent), the overall trial heat showed Obama ahead by 2 points, 44 percent to 42 percent. But focusing exclusively on the 1,832 whites in the sample revealed something interesting, even allowing for the fact that Lyndon Johnson in 1964 was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win even a plurality of the white vote.
Obama trailed McCain by 9 points among both 18-to-34-year-old white voters and those 65 and older. He lagged by 10 points among 35-to-49-year-old whites. But among those 50 to 64, Obama is losing by a whopping 18 points, 51 percent to 33 percent.
By doing very well among African-Americans and reasonably well among Hispanics, Obama could easily overcome his deficits among whites under 50 and over 65. But losing whites born between 1944 and 1958--pretty much the lion's share of the Baby Boomers--by 18 percentage points? Wow. That's a burden.
Some of this may be attributable to long-term voting patterns. These are voters who remember the disappointing--some would say failed--presidency of Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981, which was followed by the fairly popular--many would say successful--presidency of Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1989. The voters in this bloc were ages 19 to 33 when that 12-year downer period for Democrats began and 31 to 45 with their voting patterns set, most likely for life, when it ended. Obviously, there are exceptions.
It is often said that Reagan drew a whole generation into the Republican Party. And some observers wonder whether George W. Bush may have driven another generation away. If this is true, Barack Obama, meet Ronald Reagan, your real opponent.
But do white Boomers' past voting patterns explain Obama's problems with them? Or, is his difficulty that these are voters in their prime earnings years, when they are most sensitive to the issue of taxes? Do they view national security issues differently and want beefier credentials than Obama offers?
A dozen or more indicators could prove important in attempting to determine whether Obama or McCain will come out ahead on November 4. Trying to figure out what is going on in the minds of white Baby Boomers is going to be high on my list.
This article appears in the June 21, 2008, edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.