A Blueprint for Winning the White House in 2012

A new report will detail the major demographic and political currents Barack Obama and his GOP opponent will face next year

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Electoral analysts Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin of the liberal Center for American Progress will publish tomorrow a comprehensive demographic and geographic roadmap to the 2012 presidential campaign that political junkies of all ideological stripes will want to keep close at hand.

In their new paper, The Path to 270, the two correctly lay out, I believe, the critical dynamics that will likely tip the balance in both the Electoral College and popular vote next year. President Obama's biggest headwind, they argue, will be disappointment in his handling of the economy; his biggest tailwind will be ongoing demographic change that continues to bend the electorate in his direction.

After Obama's victory in 2008, I argued that he had assembled a "coalition of the ascendant": that is, he ran best among groups that were themselves growing in society, like minorities, the Millennial generation and college-educated whites, especially women.

Teixeira and Halpin draw on that concept to argue that the unbroken wave of demographic change makes it likely that these groups, which remain the most favorable to Obama, will constitute an even larger share of the vote in 2012 than they did last time. They project that the minority share of the vote will rise from 26 percent in 2008 to 28 percent in 2012, an increase commensurate with the average election to election rise since 1992 (National Journal reached a similar conclusion in its analysis, The Next America). And they project that college-educated whites will increase their share of the vote from 35 percent in 2008 to 36 percent in 2012. (Overlapping with both those trends, they calculate that 16 million more Millennials will be eligible to vote in 2012 than in 2008.) Whites without a college degree, the most solidly Republican component of the electorate, they expect to continue their generation-long decline, from 39 percent of the vote last time to 36 percent in 2012. (In 1992, when Bill Clinton was first elected, those non-college whites alone constituted an absolute majority of the electorate, 53 percent.)

By contrast, some Democrats fear (and Republicans hope) that even if more minorities and college-plus whites turn out to vote in 2012, they won't increase as a share of the overall electorate because so many older and blue-collar whites will turn out to vote against Obama in 2012, just as they did in 2010. That will be a critical variable. As this paper shows, even small changes in the electorate's composition could have huge impacts on Obama because amid such long-standing economic discontent it will be difficult for him to match his 2008 showings with any of the three big blocks in the electorate: minorities (who gave him 80 percent of their votes last time), college educated whites (47 percent) and non-college whites (40 percent).

Obama could more easily survive reduced margins among his most favorable groups if those same groups cast a larger proportion of all the votes. For instance, Teixeira and Halpin reasonably project that Obama's support among minorities (many of them suffering badly in the slowdown) will decline from his cumulative 80 percent in 2008 to about 75 percent in 2012, a figure just above the 73 percent Democrats won among them in the 2010 mid-term elections, according to exit polls. But if the minority share of the vote increases as much as they anticipate, Teixeira and Halpin project, Obama could withstand that decline and still win the popular vote by as gaping a margin as in 2008 if he captures as much of the white vote as he did last time.

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Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is National Journal Group's editorial director, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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