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Obama’s Electoral Problems Transcend Race

Barack Obama's difficulty luring white working class voters to his cause is well known. But he has plenty of other reasons to stay up at night.

by
Jennifer Rubin

Bio

May 30, 2008 - 12:51 am

It is no secret: Barack Obama’s near-nomination rests largely on a coalition of African Americans, high income voters, young people and self-described “very liberal” Democrats. These voters have consistently turned out in primary races, giving him a majority of the pledged delegates (if you don’t count Michigan and Florida). Many pundits, joined by Hillary Clinton, have focused on the absence of white voters in Obama’s coalition.

The numbers are striking. Since the heady primary days of Maryland, Virginia and Wisconsin, white Democratic voters have in essence abandoned Obama, even after the mainstream media declared the race over. In Kentucky, for example, he received a paltry 23% of the white vote. In Pennsylvania he garnered 37% of the white vote. In West Virginia the margin with these voters was 71-23%. Even in Indiana where Obama lost by only two percentage points, he lost the white vote by twenty points. And in North Carolina where he cruised to a double digit win he still lost white voters 61-37%. (But, yes, in Oregon with 57% of the voters identified as liberal he managed to win whites — the first time since Vermont’s primary back on March 4.)

And although it is true that both John Kerry (41-58%) and Al Gore (42-54%) lost the white vote, it may be hard for Obama to slip below their levels of support and still win. John Pitney, professor of political science at Claremont College, reminds us that going back to 1972 the Republican share of the white vote has never fallen below 54% in winning years. To keep McCain below that figure Obama will need to improve substantially among white voters.

But this is not Obama’s only problem. There are several others that have gained less attention, but may be equally serious.

The first is an electoral puzzle. A handy map by Karl Rove’s firm lets us all in on the most underreported story of the election: Blue states are still Blue, Red states are still Red and there are not that many still left in play. At least not now. Put differently, the country’s population has largely divided itself by states that divide quite evenly between the parties.

And for all the hype about his ability to transcend historic differences, Obama’s obvious problems with Appalachian states and the South’s conversion to Republicanism limit his ability to make inroads beyond traditional Blue states. Whether using Rove’s map or other tabulations, John McCain may start out with over 200 electoral votes and enjoy some openings in Ohio and Florida. Given that, the road to 270 electoral votes is not yet clear for Obama.

The second issue for Obama is age. Now McCain supposedly was the one with the “age problem,” but the one that counts is the age of the voters. There are lots of seniors who vote and so far they have been wary of Obama. In state after state, even while winning in Oregon, he has lost the senior vote to Clinton. Perhaps they don’t “get” and don’t much approve of Obama-mania, or perhaps they have seen enough to be skeptical of someone peddling “change” as if it were a new shirt one can easily slip on.

As one report noted:

“In the Pennsylvania and Ohio primaries, Obama lost older whites by 30 percentage points, while Clinton split white voters under age 30 in both critical contests. Obama’s senior problem is even greater among Hispanics. The Illinois senator lost older Latinos by 40 to 60 percentage points in Texas, New Mexico and California. . , Even in Wisconsin, where the white working class moved to Obama, he lost whites age 60 and older by 9 percentage points. . . In Pennsylvania and Ohio, Clinton won a stunning seven in ten white voters age 60 and older primarily because the gender gap diminishes to Clinton’s favor with older voters.”

The degree to which seniors make up a significant portion of the electorate in key swing states that already are problematic for Obama (e.g. Ohio and Florida) only multiplies the problem.

The third problem for Obama is economic class. Working class voters have not embraced him, despite his new found affection for protectionism and his efforts to highlight his background as a “community organizer.” (Perhaps most working class voters have never been “organized” in their communities and have not a clue what that means.) In Ohio, voters making less than $50,000 selected Clinton by a margin of 56-42%. Obama lost that same segment of the electorate in Texas, Kentucky, West Virginia and even California (the latter by a margin of 59-35%).

For Democrats, these voters are key to victory. Kerry was able to win downscale voters convincingly (55-44%) as was Gore, albeit less dramatically in the $30,000-$50,000 income range. And again, these voters make up a significant bloc of the voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania and the rest of the Rust Belt as well as potential swing states like Nevada and New Mexico.

And then there are Catholic voters. Once again, Obama has been unsuccessful to date in luring them. Pew polling analysis found that in Pennsylvania Clinton carried 72% of the Catholic vote, despite support for Obama from prominent Catholics like Bob Casey, Jr. But his problem is not limited to one state.

The Obama campaign has made a strong effort to deal with this lack of support among Catholics but has had only limited success so far. Could this problem persist in the general election if Obama is the Democratic nominee? It might, and, if so, it would pose a challenge for Obama in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. We should keep in mind, however, that many of the Democratic Catholics who did not vote for Obama in the primaries might well support him in the fall against John McCain. But on the other hand, not all white Catholics are Democrats — many are independents or Republicans. If nothing else, this means that white Catholics are a key group to watch.

So while it is true that the electorate in the Democratic primary polarized along racial lines it remains an open question whether that will persist in the general election and whether other groups — seniors, downscale voters and Catholics — pose equal or greater challenges for Obama.

Hispanic voters also remain a question mark. In a recent Gallup poll McCain drew 37% of the Hispanic vote, midway between George W. Bush’s share of this segment of the electorate in his successful runs against Kerry (44%) and Gore (35%). Despite conservatives’ misgivings about McCain’s stance on immigration, Pitney says that “it does seem to help him among Hispanic voters. In particular, it could help him hold key Western states in the GOP column: New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada.”

What is certain: the same coalition of ultra-liberals, African Americans, young voters and high income elites whom Obama has come to rely more heavily upon as the primaries wore on will not be sufficient to carry him to victory in November. There are, quite frankly, not enough of these voters in enough states for him to win without expanding his appeal.

Could he expand his base to encompass seniors, working class voters and Catholics and could he boost his share of Hispanics? Of course. Indeed, the general election will be determined largely by how effectively each of the candidates is in luring those voters into his fold.

Jennifer Rubin blogs at the Washington Post.
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