The president is likely to struggle with white voters who didn't go to college. Luckily for him, everyone else is optimistic about the nation.
In the first decades after World War II, Democratic presidential candidates routinely ran much better among white voters without a college education than those with at least a four year degree -- in other words, people who worked with their hands, rather than in offices. But in a process I've called the class inversion, those lines converged under Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and crossed in 2000: Al Gore in 2000 ran four points better among college-educated than non-college whites, John Kerry in 2004 ran six points better, and Obama in 2008 ran seven percentage points better. (Obama won 47 percent of college educated whites but only 40 percent of non-college whites.)
Most signs indicate that non-college whites will remain a tough audience for Obama in 2012. That will increase the pressure on him to hold as much of his well-educated white support as possible. These new poll results suggest that in that effort, he will benefit from growing economic optimism among those white-collar whites.
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When asked to describe their current financial situation, for instance, 63 percent of college-educated white men and 60 percent of college-educated white women said they are in excellent or good shape. Only 44 percent of non-college white men, and a minuscule 36 percent of non-college white women, agreed. Minorities are also more pessimistic about their current situation: just 38 percent of them say they are in excellent or good shape.
The pattern was similar on another question that asked people to place their current economic situation in one of three categories. Fully 44 percent of college-educated white women and 42 percent of the college-plus white men said they can live comfortably and save enough for retirement or other needs; just 27 percent of the non-college white men and 19 percent of the non-college white women agreed. At the other end of the spectrum, just 18 percent of the college-plus white women and 6 percent of the comparable men said they had trouble making ends meet every month. Eighteen percent of non-college white men and a head-turning 28 percent of working class white women put themselves in that category. So did 21 percent of minorities. (The rest in each group said they could get by but couldn't put away anything to save or invest.)
Looking forward though, non-whites were the most optimistic in the poll: fully 72 percent of them said they believe the economy will improve over the next year. So did 65 percent of the college-plus white women, and 63 percent of the college-educated white men. Once again, the working class whites were much more apprehensive: just 50 percent of non-college men and women say they expect improvement.
The brightening economic picture for college-educated whites comes at a time when the intense tilt toward the right on social issues (like contraception and federal funding for Planned Parenthood) in the Republican primary may also be moving some of those voters, especially women, toward Obama.
One telling indicator came in the latest Quinnipiac University poll released this week in Pennsylvania, a key state in the Democratic map where Obama's approval has lagged. In the new survey, though, Obama has reestablished a 46 percent to 40 percent advantage over Romney, largely on the strength of support among white-collar whites. In the poll, Romney still leads Obama by a solid 46 percent to 37 percent among whites without a college education. But Obama now holds a 52 percent to 39 percent lead over Romney among college-educated whites in the poll.
Among college-educated white women, the poll found Obama leading Romney by a formidable 53 percent to 37 percent. The latest national survey from the Pew Research Center, also released this week, shows a similar divergence. In the poll, Obama's approval rating among non-college whites stands at just 35 percent; but among whites with at least a four year degree, he's revived to a 53 percent approval rating (including 55 percent among the college-educated white women.)
In a head to head match-up, non-college whites preferred Romney over Obama by 56 percent to 39 percent, a division very similar to how those voters actually divided between John McCain and Obama in 2008 (58 percent to 40 percent). But among college-whites in the survey, Obama improved markedly on his 47 percent showing in 2008: they preferred Obama over Romney by 53 percent to 44 percent. In 2008, Obama won 52 percent of college-educated white women; in the Pew poll, those women preferred him over Romney by a resounding 57 percent to 40 percent, according to figures provided by Pew.
For many Republicans, one of Romney's great potential strengths as a nominee is the possibility that he will prove a more effective competitor than other recent GOP candidates for white suburbanites who tend to be socially moderate and fiscally slightly right of center. Romney has generally run well with those voters in the GOP primaries. But, if Romney wins the nomination, these recent poll trends suggest that an improving economic climate, and the past month's focus on social issues in the GOP race, has complicated Romney's task in the big suburban battlegrounds that usually decide many of the key swing states in the race.