On that front, Obama’s speech on Thursday did not break dramatic new ground. While identifying several specific second-term goals, Obama put less emphasis on detailing his plan than on framing the broad ideological choice in the election and identifying his path with bedrock American values, much as Romney also tried to do at his convention last week. Obama borrowed less from Clinton than from Ronald Reagan: He continued to bet more heavily on defining a direction than providing the public a detailed road map for how he would reach it.
In their messaging, the conventions also underscored the distance between the coalitions each side is hoping to mobilize. The Democratic convention worked overtime trying to energize young people and minority voters, particularly Latinos, who polls show to be lagging in enthusiasm. Even more striking was the unabashed appeal to socially-liberal voters, with a parade of speakers praising abortion rights, the administration’s decision to provide free access to contraception under health insurance, and the president’s support for gay marriage. All of that reflected the Democratic priority of maximizing support among white-collar whites (especially women), the most socially-liberal component of the white electorate—even at the price of further antagonizing culturally conservative voters already moving in large numbers toward the GOP.
The Republican convention, by contrast, seemed focused more on maximizing Romney’s advantage among older and blue-collar whites already leaning toward him. Though the party highlighted an array of Hispanic elected officials, led by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, resistance from its conservative base has prevented it from bending its agenda in ways that might broaden its minority appeal. Republicans, tellingly, approved a platform that took an uncompromisingly hard line on immigration—for instance, by urging the denial of federal education funds to any state that provides in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants. And the core negative message that the GOP convention’s speakers delivered against Obama—the charge that he would redistribute income from the middle-class to the poor—will likely do more to reinforce Romney’s advantage among economically-strained white voters than to reach beyond them.
Obama’s formula for reelection remains a simple equation: 80/40. If he can match his 80 percent showing from 2008 among minority voters, and those voters represent at least the 26 percent of the electorate they constituted last time, he can win a national majority with support from only about 40 percent of whites. At a Bloomberg News breakfast this week, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina dismissed Romney camp projections that the minority share of voters might slightly decline this year. “It’s not going to drop, and I think it’s going to increase,” he said.
If the minority share of the vote rises even a point and Obama matches or exceeds his 80 percent showing among them, the white vote he’d need would dip below 40 percent. That could be critical, because many polls place him right at that tipping point among white voters. In an election that could be decided by small shifts in the preference or turnout of almost any group, no single variable could be more important than whether minorities cast the same share, slightly less, or slightly more of the vote that they did when Obama won his historic victory four years ago.
This article appears in the Sep. 8, 2012, edition of National Journal.