Partly because the minority share of the vote will almost certainly rise again in 2012, Obama probably won’t need to match his 2008 percentage of the white vote to win a second term. But all of these considerations suggest that he and the party’s congressional candidates must nonetheless improve on their historically low 2010 showing to avoid further losses in 2012. “At the levels of [white discontent] you are talking about, no amount of surge voting [from minorities and young people] is going to overcome that,” says Mike Podhorzer, deputy political director of the AFL-CIO.
So one critical question is how much of the white disaffection from Democrats evident in 2010 is rooted in irrevocable ideological alienation and how much will dissolve if the economy improves. According to veteran conservative strategist Jeff Bell, all signs suggest that Obama has permanently antagonized much of the white electorate (nearly half of which this year identified itself as conservative in the exit poll). “The significance of the tea party is that it is not a situational vote,” says Bell, the policy director at the American Principles Project, a right-leaning advocacy group. “They are going to be militant even if, or when, the economy improves.… It’s significant if you have more voters who are willing to vote with the conservative coalition regardless of what’s going on with the economy.”
Axelrod, not surprisingly, disagrees. He said he did not consider it unexpected that working-class white voters, in particular, turned so harshly against Democrats this year, “because they have borne the absolute brunt” not only of this downturn but the longer-term stagnation in living standards. But with the economy at least stabilizing, Axelrod contends, Obama will have an opportunity to define himself less in reaction to crisis and more through issues of his own choosing that could appeal more to whites (and other voters) who have cooled toward him since 2009.
One example is the president’s recent declaration that the United States faces a new “Sputnik moment” that demands a more systematic strategy to compete with international economic powers such as China and India. Over the next two years, Axelrod added, Obama will return more consistently to other themes from his celebrated 2004 Democratic convention speech and his 2008 campaign, such as overcoming partisan divisions, reforming Washington, and molding government’s “important but limited role” in American life. “We have to reclaim our fundamental message equities from 2008,” Axelrod says. “The issues we’ll burnish are ones that will resonate better with some of these [disaffected white] voters, because we’ll have an opportunity to choose them.”
To the extent the economy rebounds, that would also boost Obama with some of the white voters who embraced the GOP in 2010. But short of a roaring financial recovery, many analysts in both parties believe that Obama will find it difficult to fully reconnect with most of the white voters who have drifted away from him. “I think a large majority of those voters are gone for good; I don’t know what he can do to change their impression of his view of government,” Wadhams, the Colorado GOP chairman, says.
But Wadhams quickly adds that Obama might be able to persuade some of those voters to support him anyway in 2012 if Republicans select a nominee they find unacceptable, particularly on social issues. Wadhams has painful recent experience with that phenomenon: Despite widespread dissatisfaction with Washington, Bennet won reelection to the Senate last fall partly because so many white-collar Colorado suburbanites (especially women) found Ken Buck, his tea party-infused Republican opponent, too conservative on abortion and other issues. “If our presidential nominee in 2012 … appears too extreme on abortion or gay marriage or some other social issue, there’s a slice of the electorate that clearly could go back to Obama,” Wadhams worries.
Axelrod is thinking in similar terms. In broad strokes, he argues, Obama will benefit in 2012 because the election will be framed less as a referendum on the nation’s direction and more as a choice against a Republican alternative. “The hardest thing in politics is to be measured against yourself,” he said. But in 2012, “these voters, and all voters, will be faced with a choice. And I view that as an opportunity.”
More specifically—and perhaps more revealingly—Axelrod also has his eye on the Colorado example, where the exit poll found that Bennet lost blue-collar white women by double digits and blue-collar white men by more than 2-to-1. Yet he prevailed by amassing strong support from young people, Hispanics, and other minorities; holding his deficit among college-educated white men to single digits; and routing Buck among college-educated white women. A similar formula, Axelrod suggests, could be available to Obama in 2012, especially if the Republican presidential primary process, as he expects, tugs the eventual GOP nominee toward the right. “The Bennet thing was particularly instructive,” Axelrod said. “They made a big effort there not only among Hispanics but women. The contrast he drew with Buck was very meaningful. That’s why I say the gravitational pull of those Republican primaries is going to be very significant.”
The importance of the Colorado model is that it suggests a potential path to a second term for Obama even if he regains only modest ground among white voters. In the interview, Axelrod rejected the idea that the Democrats’ difficulties among blue-collar whites will force the reelection campaign to downplay metal-bending states such as Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin where those voters dominate. But without a major revival among working-class whites, winning such states will be difficult for Obama. That would increase the pressure on his campaign to prevail in swing states that fit the Colorado mold, with large numbers of minorities and well-educated whites.
This list would include a few states already in the Democratic presidential coalition (particularly Pennsylvania, which reverted toward the GOP this year) but would focus mostly on those at its periphery, including Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado itself. If Democrats can’t soothe much of the white discontent that cost them their House majority, the Ivy League-educated, mixed-race Obama will need to win more of the states defined by the same titanic social forces that he embodies: growing diversity and rising education levels. Even more than in 2008, Obama’s 2012 map may revolve around states that see a face like his when they look toward their future.
Scott Bland contributed
This article appears in the Jan. 8, 2011, edition of National Journal.