Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been parodied for changing his positions over his political career. But when it comes to devising an election strategy for 2012, President Obama is the candidate at risk of being seen as a waffler.
The president’s advisers are stuck between pursuing two distinctly different strategies and two very different kinds of voters, each of which is crucial to his reelection. The first is an “Ohio strategy,” which means adopting an aggressively populist message to win back blue-collar voters in Rust Belt states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The second is a “Virginia strategy,” which would emphasize a more centrist message aimed at upscale white-collar professionals and college-educated suburbanites. The Virginia strategy would also appeal to voters in Colorado, Nevada, and North Carolina, and would probably be bolstered by a mobilization of young voters and minority groups, who make up a significant share of the electorate in those states.
Publicly, the president’s reelection team insists it’s actively competing in every state. In reality, though, the White House will have to choose between a specific reelection message that appeals more to one demographic than the other. The administration’s decision to cater to environmentalists by postponing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline is a clear sign of the dilemma. The president decided to punt on a job stimulus measure in order to placate parts of the coalition that elected him in 2008. Environmental sensitivities took precedence over job creation.
The problem for the president is that voters are in a populist mood, but he himself isn’t much of a populist. As a law professor, community organizer, and legislator, Obama lacks the biography and political touch to convince those voters that he’s a fighter for them. Even though his campaign has drawn comparisons to Harry Truman’s 1948 campaign, the analogy is weak. Obama has consistently underachieved in attracting working-class whites and seniors ever since he first campaigned for president. The latest Gallup weekly tracking poll shows his approval stuck at 39 percent with seniors, 40 percent among people with a high-school diploma or less, and 42 percent in the Midwest—all below his national averages.
The president can’t turn back the clock and make voters forget that he spent much of his term pursuing policies that seemed threatening to the Rust Belt’s manufacturing engine. The Democrats’ environmental agenda, particularly its recent push for a cap-and-trade system to regulate carbon emissions, was a major political loser in that part of the country. Health care reform hasn’t been a winner, either: In a symbolic thumping, a referendum against Obama’s health care law was backed by 66 percent of Ohio voters during last week’s elections, including in Democratic strongholds like Cuyahoga County.
At the same time, a populist strategy is tempting for the White House because Obama’s likely opponent, Romney, is so easy to caricature as a plutocrat with little awareness of the needs and interests of middle-class families. The Obama campaign has already offered glimpses of their eagerness to portray Romney as a hard-hearted capitalist, pointing to the time he spent at Bain Capital downsizing troubled companies. Across the board, Democrats are framing this election as one about income inequality, pointing to structural parts of the system that benefit the wealthy.
There’s no question that working-class voters are skeptical about the GOP’s agenda. Blue-collar voters in the Rust Belt have shown, through protest and the ballot box, that they are not fans of the GOP’s push for entitlement reform—with the latest evidence coming from a widespread rejection of Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s collective-bargaining restraints in last week’s referendum. Even on reliably conservative turf, voters overwhelmingly voted to overturn the law.
There are signs that, relatively speaking, Obama is doing better in Rust Belt states than in the new battlegrounds. A series of Quinnipiac battleground polls conducted over the last month show Obama narrowly trailing Romney in Florida and Virginia, but narrowly leading in Ohio and Pennsylvania. And Romney’s personal favorables are a step higher in Florida (net favorable: +12) and Virginia (+9) than in Pennsylvania (+6) and Ohio (+5).
This is where the rubber hits the road. A generic Democratic nominee—or, hypothetically, Hillary Rodham Clinton—would be well-served politically to make a blatant populist play against Romney. Blue-collar voters have traditionally been a crucial part of the Democratic coalition, even though those ties have frayed over the last decade. Win enough of them back and mobilize the base, and there’s a path to victory—one that runs through the economically hard-hit Rust Belt.
Romney appears well-positioned to peel off support from Obama’s base of white professionals, so it would seem logical for the president to change course and focus on the working class. The challenge for the president, of course, would be to pull off that down-market shift while maintaining his up-market authenticity.
This article appears in the Nov. 16, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.