Although the level of public support for Obama’s initiatives varies in polls, they generally divide the public along a consistent track that hardens partisan divisions. Pew Research Center polls over the past two years show that, with few exceptions, blue-collar and older whites, the groups at the center of the modern Republican coalition, are consistently dubious of the ideas Obama has now embraced.
In questions measuring attitudes about gun control versus gun rights, the risk of climate change, gay marriage, whether immigrants bolster or threaten traditional American values, and the requirement to provide contraception in health insurance plans, noncollege white men lean toward the conservative position on all five. Most white seniors also express conservative positions on all five issues (except guns), as do whites ages 50-64, except on gay marriage, where they split evenly.
But on guns, gay marriage, immigration, and contraception, most minorities, young people, and college-educated white women take the liberal position in the Pew surveys, often by lopsided majorities. Among adult members of the millennial generation (who are now 18-29), for instance, two-thirds support gay marriage, and just under three-fifths prioritize gun control over gun rights. The proposition that human activity is warming the climate draws less overall support than Obama’s position on the other four issues, but, once again, minorities, millennials, and college-plus white women take much more liberal positions than older and blue-collar whites.
Two other groups show more divisions on these issues. Noncollege white women, the so-called waitress moms, split closely on each of them (except climate change, which few believe is being driven by human activity). College-educated white men bend toward liberal positions on gay marriage and immigration but hold conservative views on guns, contraception, and climate change. Yet, overall, the polling suggests that the agenda Obama is carrying into his second term not only reflects the re-sorting that is powerfully reshaping each party’s coalition but is virtually guaranteed to intensify and accelerate that process.
A LASTING MAJORITY?
Many Democratic strategists welcome this prospect, believing it aligns Democrats with the preferences of expanding constituencies, while annealing the identification of the GOP with groups shrinking as a share of voters. Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of NDN, a Democratic group that studies demography and politics, believes Obama’s systematic shift on these cultural and foreign policy issues has positioned the party to build an enduring majority coalition. “He’s where the country is; the Republicans are where the country was,” Rosenberg says. The opportunity for Democrats, he argues, is magnified because the heavily diverse millennials, who bend strongly toward Obama’s position on these cultural issues, are rapidly enlarging their presence in the electorate: While 40 million of them were eligible to vote in 2008, 95 million will be by 2020. “The issue of millennials is critical because it’s an exploding part of the population,” Rosenberg says. “All of this stuff gets worse for the Republicans. This is not a static electorate, and this [Democratic] coalition hasn’t peaked. That implies this is a durable coalition.”
Ralph Reed, the veteran social-conservative leader and founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, counters that Obama and Democrats “are overplaying their hands” by identifying so clearly with liberal priorities. Even in 2012, he argues, winning a majority with these positions required Obama to engineer a massive turnout among his core groups—a feat Reed believes will prove difficult for any Democrat to replicate in 2016. “This is not the kind of playbook that you would want to carry into election after election,” he says. “They got away with it short term, but it’s not a reliable blueprint if your plan is to increase the number of core liberal voters [in a state] by 200,000 to 300,000 as an incumbent with a billion dollars to spend.”
Obama’s agenda undeniably will increase pressure on Democrats to maintain a high level of mobilization from their core supporters, because it seems guaranteed to provoke intense opposition and spirited turnout from conservatives. “It will antagonize the same groups of folks over and over again, and they will be spitting mad,” says William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former deputy policy director in the Clinton White House. “They will have been confronted and affronted on every front.” In that respect, Obama’s second-term direction has more in common with George W. Bush’s political strategy, which bet on mobilizing his base with bright-line disputes, than Bill Clinton’s, which put greater emphasis on persuading swing voters by bridging the differences between the parties.
Like some other centrist Democrats, Galston worries that Obama’s strategy could prove vulnerable if the party’s next presidential nominee can’t inspire as much turnout among minorities and millennials as he did, and thus must win a larger percentage of moderate white voters resistant to some of the president’s new priorities. Obama’s direction also presents a challenge for Democratic congressional hopes, and not just because turnout among the minorities and millennials now critical to Democratic success usually falls off in midterm elections. (That falloff was a critical factor in the GOP’s 2010 landslide.)