How Demographic Shifts Could Keep Obama in the White House

The president's 2012 prospects look shaky, but he'll benefit from population trends that show his coalition growing in key battleground states

Obama speaking at microphones - Kevin Lamarque Reuters - banner.jpg

From 30,000 feet, President Obama's prospects for reelection look bleak. A majority of voters do not approve of the job he's doing and even more disapprove of his signature legislation, while a teetering Europe threatens to plunge the economy back into recession.

But the news isn't all bad. The electoral map, coupled with demographic changes that will help Democrats, means Obama's team has a wide path toward the 270 electoral votes he needs. In short, Obama will play on a field much bigger than Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts did in 2004, when Democrats focused on only a few states. All of Kerry's chips were on just a few bets; Obama's will be spread across the table.

Obama won 365 electoral votes in 2008, taking prizes in both traditional swing states like Ohio and Florida and newer battlegrounds such as North Carolina and Virginia. Recent history suggests Obama starts his reelection bid with at least 196 electoral votes in 15 blue states and the District of Columbia, while the eventual GOP nominee likely can count on 180 votes from 22 red states.

Of the remaining 13, 11 are true swing states and account for 162 electoral votes. Obama needs 74 of those to secure a second term. Doing so means cobbling together a few western states trending Democratic, like Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico, with traditional Rust Belt battlegrounds.

Both parties can claim advantages in those Rust Belt states. The so-called "blue wall," states that have gone Democratic in the last five presidential elections, includes union-heavy Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Republicans argue that their recent success in all three means they can crumble that blue wall.

But envision the Obama team's scenarios: He wins 20 electoral votes out West, where Latinos will play a much bigger role than they did even in 2008, and the blue-wall states' 46 votes, putting him at 262 votes. Then he would need just eight more to secure reelection. Those could come from winning any of the following: Iowa and New Hampshire (10 total); Ohio (18); Virginia (13); North Carolina (15); or Florida (29).

However, it's not just Obama's national poll numbers that are sagging. He trailed the likely Republican nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, in recent polls in Michigan, New Hampshire, and Florida. (Reliable polling has shown Obama winning Pennsylvania and Ohio.)

Obama's slump in those key states, and Republican success in 2010, both are attributable to white voters, primarily those without college degrees. Obama lost that demographic by 18 points in 2008. He lost white voters with college degrees by four points. In 2010, noncollege whites backed Republican House candidates by a 30-point margin, while their advantage with college-educated whites skyrocketed to 19 points. Changing demographics, however, are shrinking white voters as a segment of the electorate. A new, comprehensive study of the electorate in 12 swing states conducted by Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin of the liberal Center for American Progress shows minorities' slice of the electoral body since 2008 will rise between 1 and 4 points in those states by Election Day, while the segment of noncollege educated white voters will shrink by 1 to 5 points.

In practical terms, that means the coalition Obama's team used to win in 2008 is expanding, while the coalition that fueled Republican wins in 2010 is dwindling. Take Ohio, the perpetual battleground state. In 2008, Obama won the backing of 83 percent of minority voters, who constituted 17 percent of the electorate, according to exit polls. He won 49 percent of college-educated whites (33 percent of the electorate) and 44 percent of noncollege whites (50 percent of the electorate). That means he won 52.28 percent of the two-party vote. (Even exit polls have a slight margin of error.)

Account for the aforementioned demographic changes, however, and the picture gets slightly better for the president. If minorities account for 18 percent of the electorate, college-educated whites make up 35 percent and noncollege whites are 47 percent. Using the Teixeira and Halpin estimate, Obama's portion of the two-party vote would increase to 52.77 percent--a 1-point shift.

These shifts mean Obama's coalition has grown in every swing state, increasing 2.4 points in Pennsylvania; almost 3 points in Nevada; 2.75 points in Virginia; and at least 1 point each in Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, and North Carolina.

Now, he just needs to win those voters back. Obama's poll numbers--and the number of white voters who have fled the Democratic Party recently--should worry his strategists. But the coalition that carried him to victory is growing, giving Obama a foundation for success in 2012. The president's position may be weak, but he has breathing room, both in charting a course toward 270 electoral votes and in rebuilding his 2008 coalition.

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Image credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters