DENVER—As I’ve written before on Quartz, President Obama is depending for reelection primarily on a “coalition of the ascendant,” composed of young people, minorities, and college-educated (and especially female) whites. In an unexpected reversal, though, as Obama struggles to repel the surging challenge from Mitt Romney, he appears to be relying less on the dynamic Sun Belt states, where this coalition is driving population growth, than on the graying industrial Rust Belt, which is less demographically favorable for him.
Although the race remains close on both fronts, Obama’s prospects today look slightly better in Midwestern Rust Belt swing states like Wisconsin, Iowa, and above all Ohio than in Southeastern and Mountain West Sun Belt states like Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, and Colorado. While not conceding the Sun Belt states, Obama’s campaign increasingly seems to view the three Rust Belt swing states, especially Ohio, as its castle keep: the last line of defense in its plan to reach the 270 Electoral College votes required for victory. “In some ways,” acknowledges one Democratic strategist close to the Obama campaign, “the Rust Belt states are better than they were for us four years ago and the Sun Belt states are tougher.” One measure of the shift: An NBC analysis of television advertising found that the Rust Belt contributed seven of the eight markets receiving the most spending last week, with only Denver cracking the list from the Sun Belt.
This unanticipated alignment is rooted in the contrasting economic experience and attitudes of the two regions. Those differences have created a greater receptivity in the Rust Belt for Obama’s attacks on Romney’s business experience, and in the Sun Belt for Romney’s portrayal of Obama as a big-spending government liberal.
The shifting state of the race across these two regions is exactly the opposite of what many observers expected when the presidential campaign season began. Traditionally, Rust Belt states led by Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Iowa have been the decisive tipping ground in American presidential elections. In his 2008 sweep, Obama won all of those states. But heading into 2012, they looked like a tougher bet for Obama because (except for Pennsylvania) their population is dominated by the older and blue-collar white voters who have always resisted him. Those also were precisely the groups that stampeded in the largest numbers toward the Republican Party during its landslide victory in the 2010 midterm election.
The Sun Belt states appeared more favorable to Obama because their populations were growing, thanks to the “coalition of the ascendant.” Indeed, in an interview with me after the 2010 election, David Axelrod, Obama’s senior political adviser, cited the victory of Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., that year—in which he survived a huge deficit among blue-collar white men by amassing big margins among young people, minorities and upscale whites, especially women—as the model for Obama’s own path to reelection.
Looking at the country in general, Axelrod’s assessment still holds: National polls consistently show that these are Obama’s best groups. Yet the paradox is that even as Obama is unquestionably relying on that “Colorado model” in building his overall coalition, he probably faces a greater risk today of losing Colorado and its demographic cousin Virginia than Ohio and Wisconsin, states at the opposite end of the demographic spectrum.
When David Plouffe, the top White House political strategist, earlier this week ranked the president’s prospects in the nine most heavily contested battleground states, Nevada was the only one from the Sun Belt that made his top tier; the others were Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, and New Hampshire (which overlaps demographically, if not geographically, with the other three). Plouffe placed the other key Sun Belt battlegrounds of Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida in a second tier of states more challenging for Obama. Meanwhile, Michigan and Pennsylvania, two other Rust Belt behemoths that Republicans once hoped to contest, appear only at the most distant edge of possibilities for Romney.
Part of this difference can be explained by economic circumstances. Until the 2008 crash, the Sun Belt states were growing much more rapidly than the Rust Belt states, both in population and employment. But with economies heavily dependent on growth itself, many states across the Sun Belt were especially burned by the housing collapse and have experienced a frustratingly slow recovery since.
Meanwhile, the uptick in manufacturing employment has generated a greater sense of revival across the Rust Belt. Today the unemployment rate in each of the four top Rust Belt battlegrounds stands at 7.3 percent or less, while it is running at 8 percent or more in all of the five top Sun Belt battlegrounds except Virginia.
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