Mitt Romney has long faced charges of lacking empathy, but, ironically, his greatest challenge in the campaign's final months may be winning the voters who he most resembles: well-educated, white-collar white suburbanites.
Romney captured the GOP nomination largely on support from those voters — in places like Oakland County, Mich., the leafy Detroit suburb where he was reared (as he noted, with his awkward comment about his birth certificate).
But in the general election, college-educated white voters, especially women, loom as an indispensable line of defense for President Obama. In last week's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Obama drew just 34 percent of white voters without a college education, down substantially from his modest 40 percent in 2008. But the poll found Obama attracting 48 percent of college-educated whites, virtually unchanged from his 47 percent last time. That combined with his nearly 4-1 advantage among minority voters provided Obama with his small overall lead. To win, insists veteran GOP pollster Bill McInturff, Romney must "improve his numbers" among college-educated whites.
Romney's challenge in white-collar America underscores how thoroughly a "class inversion" has reshaped the electoral landscape. From the Depression into the 1970s, Republicans were the party of white-collar whites and Democrats the party of whites who worked with their hands. Every Democratic nominee from Adlai Stevenson through Jimmy Carter ran substantially better among noncollege than college-educated whites. But in his two victories, Bill Clinton did as well among college-educated as noncollege whites. In 2000, Al Gore ran 4 points better among those well-educated whites; the gap widened to 6 points for John Kerry in 2004 and to 7 for Obama. This year, a gaping class inversion runs through not only national measures like the NBC/WSJ poll but all of the recent Quinnipiac CBS/New York Times swing-state polls.
Other measures find the same trend. As The Cook Political Report's David Wasserman and I have calculated, Ronald Reagan in 1984 won 82 of the 100 counties with the highest proportion of college graduates. But Democrats have taken at least half of those counties in every election since 1992; Obama captured 78 of them, receiving a resounding 62 percent of their combined votes.
Likewise, Atlantic Senior Editor Richard Florida and his colleagues at the University of Toronto's Martin Prosperity Institute have used Bureau of Labor Statistics to estimate the share of every county's workforce that belongs to what he has labeled "the creative class." Those are workers — from architects to corporate managers — who Florida defines as being "paid to use their minds." The 100 counties with today's highest share of creative-class workers split evenly between the two parties in 1988, Wasserman calculated; but in each election since, the Democrats have won about three-fifths of the combined vote from those counties, with Obama establishing a new high at 64 percent. Meanwhile, Obama drew less than two-fifths of voters in both the 100 counties with the fewest college-graduates and the fewest creative-class workers.
Social issues explain much of this reversal: White-collar whites, especially women, tend to take more-liberal positions on questions like abortion than their blue-collar counterparts (or most minorities, for that matter). And while college-educated men often respond to conservative tax-and-spending arguments, the women show more openness to activist government.
In a race this close, the margin in every group matters. Romney's path would be eased if he trimmed, even slightly, Obama's 4-1 advantage among minorities in 2008. Conversely, Obama's ad barrage portraying Romney as an uncaring plutocrat is aimed largely at suppressing the president's losses among blue-collar whites, especially women. And yet to win reelection, he almost certainly needs to run closer to his 2008 number among college- than noncollege whites, as most polls now show him doing.
These upscale voters, McInturff says, are more reluctant to blame Obama for the economy and are also more liberal on social issues — which is why the latest eruption over rape and abortion represents such a headache for Romney. "Our ability to persuade them will be largely based on our ability to frame this as an economic choice," says Romney adviser Kevin Madden.
During the primaries, Romney's supporters argued that his buttoned-down demeanor and managerial pedigree positioned him to recapture voters in white-collar suburbs now tilting Democratic. Even with his working-class gains, Romney probably won't win unless he proves them right.