How Obama Won: Marrying Old and New Democratic Coalitions

A combination of the young, minorities, and women joined with just enough blue-collar Midwestern whites to put the president over the top.


President Obama won a second term by marrying the new Democratic coalition with just enough of the old to overcome enduring economic disenchantment and a cavernous racial divide.

In many places, particularly across the Sun Belt, Obama mobilized the Democrats' new "coalition of the ascendant," winning enough support among young people, minorities and college-educated whites, especially women, to overcome very weak numbers among blue-collar whites and college-educated men. But in the upper Midwest, where there are not enough of those voters to win, Obama attracted just enough working-class whites to hold the critical battlegrounds of Wisconsin, Iowa, and above all Ohio against Mitt Romney's forceful challenge.

Navigating those two tightropes, Obama held enough states to win a comfortable margin in the Electoral College, despite the headwind of the frustratingly slow economic recovery.

Yet while Obama's victory was emphatic from some angles, it was tenuously equivocal from others.

On the one hand, Obama's success underscored the demographic and geographic advantages that Democrats have developed over the past quarter-century in the race for the White House. With the victory, Democrats have now won the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections -- matching the Republican record from 1968 to1988 (if not the massive margins the GOP frequently racked up during those years). Obama also held all 18 "blue wall" states that have voted Democratic in each election since 1992. By doing so he set a new milestone: that is the most states Democrats have won that often since the formation of the modern party system in 1828.

In another important success, Obama's unprecedented effort to reshape the electorate's composition, boosted by the tailwind of changing demography, also paid off: According to the exit polls, the share of votes cast by minorities increased to 28 percent (just as Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, had predicted for months). The president captured an overwhelming 80 percent of those voters, including not only more than nine in 10 African-Americans, but also about seven in 10 Hispanics, and about three in four Asians.

In the Sun Belt, that rising minority participation allowed him to overcome a weak performance among whites to win Virginia, Nevada, and Colorado, and to hold a narrow lead late into the night in Florida. In the key Midwestern battlegrounds with much smaller minority populations, the president engineered a different formula for victory. In those states, Obama exceeded his national performance among white voters by just enough to repel Romney's challenge. Exit polls show that the unstinting effort by his campaign and its allied super PACs to paint Romney as an insensitive plutocrat detonated with explosive force in those critical states, particularly Ohio, where nearly three in five voters said his agenda would favor the rich. Obama's national numbers precisely approached his winning formula of capturing 80 percent of minorities and 40 percent of whites.

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Ronald Brownstein is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships. More

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

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