The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point

By John Ellis - June 11, 2012

In 2008, 43 percent of white voters cast their presidential ballots for Sen. Barack Obama. That was more than he needed to win. Today, according to the most recent FOX News poll, 35 percent of white voters say that they support President Obama’s re-election. This is what makes the 2012 presidential election too close to call.

The overriding fear of Team Obama is that the president’s support among white voters will collapse. The math is simple. If Romney gets 65 percent of the white vote (which will likely comprise -- at least -- 72 percent of the electorate) then he gets 48 percent of the total vote. From there, Romney need only get 20 percent of all non-white voters to win by a comfortable margin.

The 2008 presidential election featured Mr. Obama at the height of his political appeal. Black turnout, youth turnout, liberal turnout surged accordingly, padding his victory margin by as much as two full percentage points. His margin was further padded by the lethargy of conservative voters, who were lukewarm to Sen. John McCain.

This time around, the enthusiasm for President Obama among younger voters, black voters and liberal voters has dimmed appreciably. Conservative voters, despite their misgivings about Gov. Romney, are no longer lethargic. They’re fired up and ready to go. Wisconsin added fuel to their fire.

So, despite most of what you have read about demographics being political destiny, the 2012 presidential election boils down to the pursuit of those white voters who helped then-Sen. Obama hit the 43 percent mark in 2008, but who are now disappointed by the president’s performance in office.

This cohort of white voters comprises about 8 percent of the total electorate (roughly speaking). They are more middle-income than not, more female than not, more anxious than not, and of an age where they still have to worry about the generation in front of them as well as the generation behind.

They are in debt. The equity in their homes has evaporated. They do not have enough money set aside to pay for any kind of retirement. Their wages are stagnant. They cannot afford to pay higher taxes. They live paycheck to paycheck. They are desperately afraid that they (or their spouse) will lose their jobs.

The good news for Team Obama is that, in the main, these voters like and admire the president. They like his intelligence, his discipline, his level-headedness, his normalcy, even his sense of humor. They like his family. They were proud of themselves for electing him. They think he has been good for brand America on many levels. They appreciate that he is relentless in his pursuit of Islamic terrorists. They don’t want to just throw him under the bus.

But they are leaning toward dismissal. They share a keen sense of disappointment. He doesn’t seem to grasp that the overwhelming issue (in their minds) is overwhelming, crushing debt. They can’t understand why he isn’t doing everything he can to reduce the cost of government. They can’t understand why he hasn’t cleared the path for economic growth, especially in the area of energy. They’re unnerved by his lack of leadership on fiscal and economic issues generally.

And they don’t like it that he doesn’t listen. When the voters of Massachusetts elected Scott Brown – as pure a referendum on Obamacare as one could imagine – the president pressed ahead with the Affordable Care Act anyway. The very name – Affordable Care Act – seemed almost an affront. When the voters in 2010 said “enough” to new spending, Obama ignored the message and derailed the subsequent budget negotiations with Congress. When the voters of North Carolina said “no” to same-sex marriage, the very next day the president endorsed same-sex marriage.

Among these voters, there is a growing sense that the die is cast on the economy. Europe is locked in a vicious cycle; the news will only get worse. The worse it gets, the further confidence will fall. Lower confidence means less business investment. Which means that the U.S. economy will grow at stall speed, at best, for the foreseeable future. These voters are increasingly beginning to think that the only way to change the dynamic is by changing presidents.

This leaves Team Obama with two options: a scorched earth campaign and/or a “framed choice” campaign. They’re warming up the scorched earth campaign, running negative ads about Romney’s business career, his record as governor, etc. It’s not working. Romney has risen in the polls since it began. And it has diminished Obama; made him look hackish and small.

“Framed choice” is Team Obama’s only hope of holding enough white voters to avoid dismissal. The “framed choice” strategy is basically this: Everyone knows that pensions (Social Security) and health care (Medicare, Medicaid, child health programs) are going to bankrupt the nation unless they are “right-sized” to revenue and existing debt. Whoever is elected president in 2012 will have to “right-size” these programs over the course of the next four years.

The framed choice for the white voters who will decide this election is this: Who do you think will better protect the interests of working-class and middle-class families when the inevitable cuts are packaged? Who do you want negotiating for you when it comes down to who gets hurt and who doesn’t? Do you really want Mitt Romney and a bunch of right-wing congressmen making these decisions? Only a Democrat can be trusted to properly right-size the great Democratic social welfare programs.

This is, at least, potentially, a winning argument for the president. More to the point, it’s the only argument, politically speaking, that he has left. 

John Ellis is a contributing columnist to RealClearPolitics who lives in New York.

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