On Race, Class, and Gender, Obama's Polling Looks a Lot Like 2008

The president is holding his advantage with the groups that boosted him to victory four years ago, but he can't rest easy.


Four recent national polls, including three released in the past 24 hours, generally show the electorate dividing between President Obama and Mitt Romney along lines of class, gender and race familiar from the 2008 race.

The surveys -- from ABC and the Washington Post; the Pew Research Center; CNN/ORC; and the first Gallup tracking poll, diverge in their overall results. The first three polls show Obama leading by seven, four and nine percentage points respectively; the first Gallup track placed Romney up by two percentage points.

But the Gallup track, which is conducted among registered voters, has a sample that looks much more like the electorate in 2010 than the voting population that is likely to turn out in 2012: only 22 percent of the Gallup survey was non-white, according to figures the organization provided to Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. That was close to the non-white share of the vote in 2010 (23 percent), but in 2008, minorities comprised 26 percent of all voters, according to exit polls; the Obama campaign, and other analysts, project the minority share of the vote will increase to 28 percent in 2012. In its survey, Pew, for instance, puts the non-white share at 25 percent.

The division between the white and non-white share of the vote profoundly affects the results because all of the surveys show a racial gap between Obama and Romney that could be at least as large as 2008. In that campaign, Obama became the first candidate ever to lose whites by double-digits and still win the presidency. John McCain outpolled Obama among whites by 55 percent to 43 percent, but Obama won decisively anyway by carrying a cumulative 80 percent of minorities, including 95 percent of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics. The race also produced a sharp divide within the white population: McCain amassed big margins among white men with and without a college degree, and non-college white women, the so-called waitress moms. Obama carried a majority only of white women with at least a four year degree.

All four of the new polls, with some variation, show patterns consistent with 2008. Obama's advantage among all non-white voters varies in the four surveys only modestly: he leads over Romney among them by 71 percent to 23 percent in the CNN poll; 74 percent to 20 percent in the ABC/Post survey; 77 percent to 17 percent in the new Gallup track; and 78 percent to 17 percent in the new Pew survey.

Romney in turn draws between 57 percent and 62 percent of the vote among white men without a college degree in the four surveys, holding Obama between 27 percent (in the Gallup track) to 37 percent (in CNN). In both Pew and ABC/Washington Post, Obama draws 32 percent of non-college white men. In 2008, he carried 39 percent of those blue collar men. In other words, all four of the surveys find Obama losing ground among working-class white men, consistently his toughest audience.

Among white men with at least a four-year degree, Romney in the four surveys draws between 53 percent (CNN) and 58 percent (Gallup), again only a relatively small variation. Obama attracts between 36 percent (Gallup) and 42 percent (ABC/Post and Pew). That compares to Obama's 42 percent among those men in 2008.

The variation among the polls is somewhat wider with the waitress moms. In 2008, Obama won 41 percent of those non-college white women; his showing in the new surveys varies from a low of 37 percent (in Gallup and Pew) to 42 percent (in ABC/Washington Post) to 46 percent (in the CNN survey). Romney's numbers among them varies from 46 percent in CNN to 54 percent in Pew.

In all four surveys, Obama's best group among whites is the college-educated white women. His showing among them varies from 60 percent (in the ABC/Post survey) to 55 percent (in Pew) to a narrower 51 percent to 45 percent advantage in the CNN survey. Only the Gallup track shows him trailing among them, by 45 percent to 47 percent for Romney. That means three of the four surveys show him matching or exceeding his 2008 number with those well-educated women, who tend to be not only socially liberal but more open to activist government than other whites. All four surveys show a gap between the preferences of the college white women-who appear to have been alienated by the intense focus on social issues during the GOP primaries-and the non-college white men even larger than in 2008.

Even with their modest variations, these four surveys paint a similar picture. Obama is largely holding the minority and college-educated white women who comprise two pillars of the modern Democratic base (along with young people.) But he is facing erosion among blue-collar white men and struggling to maintain even his modest 2008 support among the two swing quadrants in the white electorate: the college-plus white men and non-college white women.

For the moment, that division of allegiances is enough to provide Obama an overall advantage (he would lead slightly even in the Gallup track if the minority share of the vote was adjusted to its level in 2008). But it's not enough of an edge for him to breathe easy -- and the fact that most of the white electorate is resisting him at least as much as it did in 2008 suggests he may never entirely get to such a comfortable place before November, even if he remains ahead overall. Check back Thursday for another snapshot, from the first University of Phoenix/National Journal Next America Poll.