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Obama's White Support Is Too Low to Win

By David Paul Kuhn - June 22, 2012

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Obama’s recent immigration decision will probably help secure his Hispanic flank. But he already had the support of nearly two-thirds of Hispanics by Gallup’s measure -- roughly the share he earned in 2008. Hispanics’ views of Obama have, however, fluctuated more than whites’.

That steady white opposition should now concern Democrats. Obama’s broken floor with whites appears to be his new foundation. And it’s more than a white working-class problem. In fact, it always is. The white male gap helps explain why. Economic class and education do not impact white men and women the same way.

Currently, among white college graduates, according to Gallup data, 48 percent of women favor Obama and 40 percent of men do as well. Among working-class whites, 37 percent of women favor Obama and 30 percent of men agree.

Obama had a breakthrough with white men a political world ago. He performed better with white men than every Democratic nominee since Jimmy Carter (a point to remember, when Obama's race is raised). Obama performed better than John Kerry, though slightly worse than Al Gore and Bill Clinton four years earlier, with white women (see my wrap-up of 2008 for more details). Obama’s current support with white men, 34 percent, reflects about where he stood with them before the September stock market crash.

That crash was critical to the making of this president’s mandate. Now the economy threatens to unmake his presidency. Those voters who swung to Obama with the crash have left him, above all else, because they came to believe he did not focus enough on the Great Recession that followed the crash. That’s no small side note, especially on the cusp of the Supreme Court’s health care ruling. Obama chose to invest his political capital in that cause over others, such as a new New Deal.

Whites helped give Obama his capital. He began his presidency with at least six-in-10 whites behind him. His white support first fell, as with independents, below 50 percent in the summer of 2009. Washington was then consumed with health care. Americans then felt consumed by hard times. The health care law passed in early 2010. Only about a third of whites approved of it. Why? Begin with the mommy-daddy politics that molds modern American politics. Soon after the law passed, Obama tried to pivot to the economy. But it was too late. Governing is choosing. And by the midterm elections, as I first reported the morning after, Democrats suffered unprecedented white flight. Obama’s party paid for the economy but also his choices.

Today, the demographic status quo is not good for either candidate. The long-term future favors Democrats. The GOP must reconcile itself with the browning of America. But even in early 2009, amid renewed talk of an emerging Democratic majority, it was clear that demographics are not electoral destiny. That Democratic majority has not emerged over the past decade because Democrats have not made sustained inroads with the actual demographic majority.

How quickly that proved true. In 2010, whites backed GOP House candidates by a 60-38 margin. It gave Republicans a historic landslide. The white margin two years ago roughly matches the break-even point today. That’s because presidential electorates are browner and blacker, though possibly not enough for Democrats. Plainly put, the data shows that Romney will likely win if he matches his party’s minority support in 2008 and its majority support in 2010.

Democrats have come to depend on diversity. But even today, diversity may not prove enough to save Obama. 

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David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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