A Blueprint for Winning the White House in 2012

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

Obama in Iowa - AP Photo:Kevin Sanders - banner.jpg

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.

That's a big if, though: It's highly unlikely that Obama will run as well among whites in 2012 as in 2008. Assuming the minority vote unfolds as they project, Teixeira and Halpin calculate that Obama could still win a popular vote majority if he maintains his 47 percent share among college educated whites, even if non-college whites stampede toward the GOP as overwhelmingly as they did in 2010 (when Republicans captured 63 percent of them, up from 58 percent in 2008). Alternately, they argue, Obama could still maintain a narrow popular vote majority if he attracts three-fourths of minorities and loses college whites and non-college whites by the same margins John Kerry did against George W. Bush in 2004. (Kerry's deficit with each group was about five percentage points larger than Obama's against John McCain in 2008.)

"In summary," they write, "given solid, but not exceptional, performance among minority voters, Obama's re-election depends on either holding his 2008 white college-graduate support, in which case he can survive a landslide defeat of 2010 proportions among white working-class voters, or holding his slippage among both groups to around 2004 levels, in which case he can still squeak out a victory."

The losing scenario for Obama, they acknowledge, would be if Republicans replicate their 2010 "landslide margins" among non-college whites and also make meaningful inroads among the college-plus whites. That's exactly what the GOP did in the 2010 House races (winning not only 63 percent of non-college whites but also 58 percent of college whites). Unless the economy improves, Democrats face a real risk that the GOP could replicate that formula in 2012. As I noted in this post, recent polls suggest that at least on first impression, Mitt Romney has a much stronger chance than his GOP rivals of peeling off significant numbers of those upscale whites, who probably represent Obama's last line of defense in 2012.

As for the Electoral College, Teixeira and Halpin see the two parties approaching the competition with a roughly equal number of votes locked down: 186 for the Democrats and 191 for the Republicans. (They assume that four of the states in the "blue wall" - the 18 states that have voted Democratic in at least the past five presidential elections - are up for grabs.) They see the remaining swing states dividing into two broad clusters. One is a group of six older, heavily white, Midwestern and Rust Belt states that are growing slowly in population if at all: Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The second is a bucket of diverse, younger and rapidly growing Sunbelt states, three of them in the Southeast (North Carolina, Virginia and Florida) and three in the Southwest (Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico). Obama won all 12 of those states last time, but economic discontent means that none of them are a sure thing for him next year.

As Teixeira and Halpin conclude: "The stage is set for a showdown of demographics versus economics in the 2012 election. Each side has clear strengths but also very serious weaknesses as they move into this showdown. Victory will likely go to the side most willing to acknowledge their weaknesses and attack them boldly. This will be no election for the faint-hearted."

For my take on these same issues, see these articles since 2008: Coalition of the Ascendant (Nov. 8, 2008), The Blue Wall and The Diploma Belt on our subscriber site, and The Hidden History of the American Electorate, White Flight and The Next America on our free site.

Image credit: Kevin Sanders/AP

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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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