Across most of the presidential battleground states, particularly in the Midwest, President Obama's lead rests on a surprisingly strong performance among blue-collar white women who usually tilt toward the GOP.
A National Journal analysis of recent polling results across 11 states considered battlegrounds shows that in most of them, Obama is running considerably better than he is nationally among white women without a college education. Obama's gains with these so-called "waitress moms" are especially pronounced in heartland battlegrounds like Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
Combined with his continued support among other elements of his "coalition of the ascendant," including young people, minorities, and college-educated women, these advances among blue-collar women have been enough to propel Obama to the lead over Republican Mitt Romney in the most recent public surveys in all 11 states (albeit in some cases within the polls' margins of error).
Democrats say blue-collar women have been the principal, and most receptive, target for their extended ad barrage portraying Romney as a plutocrat who is blind, if not indifferent, to the struggles of average families.
"Advertising matters, and a lot of the advertising is aimed at that group," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who is advising the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA. "That's certainly been our No. 1 priority."
Garin earlier this year described the movement of blue-collar women in battleground states toward Obama as "the demographic development of the summer" and the Obama campaign has tracked the same shift. A Republican strategist familiar with the Romney campaign's thinking agreed that Obama's improving position among these economically strained, often culturally conservative women has keyed his rise in most battleground states. "The sheer weight of their advertising, and the shows they targeted that advertising on, it is [aimed at] lower-income, white, working women," the GOP strategist said. "They are being pounded with this stuff."
The powerful new Obama ad that airs the audio of Romney's hidden-camera "47 percent" remarks, for instance, features three different images of working-class women, each of whom are shown without men present. The spectral opening image, which might have been lifted from a Dorothea Lange photo from the Depression, shows a vulnerable-looking woman surrounded by two children on a barren dirt road. The strong implication is that without the government support Romney is denouncing in the voiceover, the family might be bereft.
The Obama campaign has heavily targeted its ads on daytime shows that attract a large audience of downscale women, including programs like Judge Judy and Dr. Phil, and networks like Lifetime, Bravo, and the Hallmark Channel. "It is just sheer tonnage and carpet bombing," said the GOP strategist.
The effect is measured in the dynamics evident in the swing states. At National Journal's request, the pollsters conducting the CBS News/New York Times/Quinnipiac, NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist Institute, and CNN/ORC polls of battleground states analyzed their findings to show the results in each state among all minority voters, and then among whites divided into four groups: men and women, with and without a college education (see chart).
In most respects, the state results track national patterns, suggesting that demography usually trumps geography in shaping voter preferences. The exception is the blue-collar white women.
As in the national surveys, Obama's best group in the battlegrounds is minority voters. For each battleground state in which pollsters were able to provide results among minority voters, Obama is winning at least two-thirds, except for New Hampshire, where the results among the small minority population is probably a polling anomaly. The recent surveys show Obama's strongest performance among minorities in North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, where African-Americans dominate the minority population.
In national surveys, Obama's best group among whites is invariably college-educated white women, who gave him a 52 percent majority in 2008, significantly better than his showing among the other three groups of white voters. Recent national polls show Obama again drawing between 50 percent of those women (last week's Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor) and 54 percent of them (September surveys by ABC News/Washington Post and the Pew Research Center).
The latest battleground surveys similarly show Obama winning at least 50 percent of college-educated white women in every state except Michigan, Nevada, and North Carolina, and exceeding 55 percent support among them in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In most states, he runs better with these women voters than any other group of whites.
Obama's weakest group among whites in national polling is noncollege white men, who gave him only 39 percent of their votes last time. He is polling at that level or lower again, and in the recent round of state surveys, he draws only 40 percent or fewer of these men in every state except Michigan, New Hampshire,Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Likewise, the recent national surveys generally find Obama running slightly below the 43 percent he won in 2008 among college-educated white men. In most of the battleground states (including Colorado, Florida,Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia), the polls show the president coming in around 40 percent with them; he's running best with them in Iowa and Wisconsin.
The biggest divergence between these battleground-state polls and national surveys is Obama's performance among white women without a college education. These women have tilted Republican in every presidential election since 1980 except 1996, and in 2008, Obama won only 41 percent of them. The three recent national surveys showed Obama attracting between 35 percent (Heartland Monitor) and 44 percent (Pew) of their votes.
But in the battleground states, especially in the Midwest, Obama's performance is stronger. Among these women, the state-level polls show Obama drawing 46 percent in Michigan, 48 percent in Florida, 49 percent in Nevada, 50 percent in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, 51 percent in Pennsylvania, and 52 percent in Ohioand Iowa. Obama still lags badly among them only in North Carolina and Virginia, where many blue-collar whites are also evangelical Christians, and to a lesser extent Colorado.
Beyond the opposition's portrayal of Romney as obtuse to the problems of working families, both sides agree that he has been hurt among blue-collar women by the skirmishes over defunding Planned Parenthood and access to contraception in health insurance. Many of these women view such women's-health matters not as moral issues but as practical pocketbook concerns. The combined effect of all this is measured in the most recent CBS News/New York Times/Quinnipiac survey in Ohio, which found that while about three-fifths of noncollege women agreed that Obama "cares about the needs and problems of people like you," roughly an equal number of them said Romney did not.
Both campaigns agree the Democratic ads have damaged Romney much more with blue-collar women than blue-collar men. But both sides also agree that these women are the least stable component of Obama's emerging coalition. "I still say the noncollege white women are the moving piece of the electorate," Garin said. "But Romney is an imperfect vessel for them to say the least."
Republican pollster Alex Bratty has spent several months conducting focus groups of "Walmart moms" — women who regularly shop at the giant discount chain. That group extends beyond blue-collar women but includes many of them. Bratty says the women in her groups are grappling with a choice that leaves many profoundly ambivalent.
"President Obama, they are dissatisfied with the performance, but they do relate to him on a personal level," she said. "For Mitt Romney, the professional résumé is there "¦ but he's not as personable, or relatable, to them." While Romney's wealth is clearly an issue for some of these voters, she said, Obama's position is still precarious because "they are not happy with how things have gone and they are very uncertain about continuing down that path."
Convincing more of those women to reassess their tentative choice of Obama may be Romney's most urgent task in the presidential debates that begin this week. "That is the key group that has to move first," acknowledges the GOP strategist. These battleground-state trends show why.