Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at both The Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress. He is also a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, where he has directed projects on political demography and geography and coauthored a series of papers with William Frey on the shifting demographics of battleground states.
John Halpin is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress focusing on political theory, communications, and public-opinion analysis. He is the codirector and creator of the Progressive Studies Program at CAP, an interdisciplinary project researching the intellectual history, foundational principles, and public understanding of progressivism.
Will Obama's support among college-educated whites hold up in 2012?
Polling persistently shows Obama doing as well as or better than his performance in 2008 among white college graduates. In Pew polls, for example, this group is averaging around a 2-point deficit for Obama, compared with 4 points in 2008.
Will Romney's advantage among white working-class voters be large enough to win?
The developments just summarized give Obama a considerable buffer against expected weakness among white noncollege voters. Indeed, if the minority and white college-educated vote hold up as well in November as they have in recent polling, Romney needs to generate a huge margin among white working-class voters to have a decent chance of winning — closer to the 30 points congressional Republicans won this group by in 2010 than the 18-point margin received by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in 2008.
In fact, if Obama replicates his 2008 performance among minorities and white college graduates, then Romney would need to carry white working-class voters by double McCain's margin (36 points) even if the minority vote does not grow at all. And if the minority vote does grow as expected, he would need north of a 40-point margin among the white working class to prevail. That's how steep a climb Romney will face if Obama holds steady among minorities and white college grads.
But Romney has not been remotely close to that level of support among white working-class voters. He's been averaging around the same margin McCain received in 2008 with occasional readings as high as 23 points. Even the latter margin is far off what he will need to win, given the size and leanings of the rest of the electorate. Thus, Romney, to be successful in November's election, needs to greatly exceed his currently observed upper bound of support among white working class voters.
What will happen in November?
Demographics are important but not determinative of election outcomes. Politics and campaigns matter in putting together viable electoral majorities. A few weeks out, it is certainly possible to see Romney building on his debate performance to turn a surge of conservative activism and white working-class skepticism into a narrow victory should the president's supporters end up being as apathetic as they were in 2010 and if late-deciding voters break heavily against him. But it is also possible to envision many voters, including some segments of the white working class, turning away from the perceived radicalism of the Republican ticket and agenda and returning the president to office by a few percentage points.