In the campaign's final days, President Obama's hopes of reelection may turn on his ability to assemble very different coalitions of support in the Sunbelt and the Rustbelt, a wave of new battleground state polling this week suggests.
In diverse Sunbelt states like Virginia, Florida and Colorado, Obama is drawing enough backing from minorities and upscale white women to remain step-for-step with Mitt Romney, despite big deficits for the president among working-class whites and a substantial shortfall among college-educated white men in most of those states, according to detailed analyses of recent surveys provided to National Journal.
In Rustbelt battlegrounds with smaller minority populations, like Iowa, Wisconsin, and above all Ohio, Obama is clinging to a narrow advantage behind strong support from those same upscale white women-and a better performance among working-class whites, especially women, than anywhere else in the country.
In essence, in the Sunbelt, Obama is relying on the new Democratic coalition of minorities, young people and upscale whites, while in the Rustbelt he is depending on support that much more closely resembles the traditional New Deal coalition that Democrats mobilized from the 1930s to the 1960s.
Across the Sunbelt, Obama is courting the new coalition with a message that draws sharp contrasts with Romney on social issues like abortion and access to contraception. In the Rustbelt, he's relying primarily on a message of economic populism that stresses his support for the auto bailout, and paints Romney as a rapacious corporate raider for his years at Bain Capital. "In the Rustbelt the axis on which the decision occurs is much more focused on these questions of economic populism," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who is working in these states for the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA. "But in [Sunbelt] states where the suburban vote is more dominant the decision making is much more along the line of in step or out of step with the voters' philosophical views" especially on social issues.
As I noted recently, many analysts (including me) expected the Sunbelt states to be more favorable for Obama because their population growth has been fueled by the constituencies at the core of his "coalition of the ascendant," particularly minorities and college-educated whites. By contrast, the Rustbelt states are dominated by older and blue-collar whites who are the most resistant to Obama in national polling.
Yet while Obama remains highly competitive in most Sunbelt battlegrounds, he enters the final weekend in a slightly stronger position in the Rustbelt states, according to the latest surveys. The Sunbelt, with its traditional skepticism about government, has proved more receptive to Romney's drive to portray Obama as a bloated big-spending liberal.
Meanwhile, Obama has benefited across the Rustbelt from an overall decline in unemployment more robust than in many of the Sunbelt states still struggling to crawl out from the blast radius of the housing implosion, as well as the specific popularity of the auto rescue. "The complaint that every other working class white person had about this administration — where was my bailout? — has been answered in Ohio," acknowledges one Republican strategist close to the Romney campaign. At the same time, the Obama team's portrayal of Romney as a symbol of corporate irresponsibility has resounded more powerfully in the Rustbelt, with its bitter history of plant closings and industrial decline, than in the Sunbelt, whose culture is defined more by opportunity and growth. "That [Bain] narrative is so much more resonant with blue-collar voters up there in the Midwest," Garin says.
Across the region, Obama has also benefited from the AFL-CIO's unprecedented program to reach not only union but also non-union working-class voters through its Workers' Voice program. That effort, centered on door-to-door canvassing, is much more robust in Rustbelt states with a stronger union tradition (particularly Ohio and Wisconsin) than in the Sunbelt, except for Nevada. In Ohio alone, the program is attempting to contact two million working-class families behind a lunch-bucket message of economic populism.
The combined effect of these differences is evident in the new polling. In national surveys, Obama faces the prospect of the weakest showing among non-college white voters of any Democratic nominee since Walter Mondale was buried in Ronald Reagan's 1984 landslide. But in the Rustbelt, the situation is very different, according to surveys released since Wednesday in Ohio (Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS), Wisconsin and Iowa (NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist) and Michigan (EPIC-MRA for theDetroit Free Press and a consortium of state television stations.)
Nationally Obama is winning just 32 percent of white men without a college education (compared to 65 percent for Romney) according to a compilation of results from the ABC/Washington Post national tracking poll over the past two weeks provided to National Journal by ABC pollster Gary Langer. But the new state surveys show Obama winning 38 percent of those blue-collar men in Michigan, 42 percent in Ohio and Iowa, and 43 percent in Wisconsin, all well above his national performance, according to results provided to National Journal by Quinnipiac, Marist and EPIC-MRA.
Likewise, the ABC/Washington Post national tracking poll shows Obama capturing only 39 percent of white women without a college degree (compared to 58 percent for Romney). But the state surveys show him drawing 40 percent of those women in Michigan, 50 percent in Ohio, 55 percent in Wisconsin and 56 percent in Iowa.
In all four of those states Obama is also benefiting from strong showings among the most consistently Democratic portion of the white electorate: college-educated white women. The latest surveys show him winning 50 percent of them in Iowa, Ohio and Michigan, and 49 percent in Wisconsin. That virtually mirrors the national results from the ABC/WP survey, which also place him at 49 percent with those women (which would represent only a slight decline from his national 52 percent showing with them in 2008). And he enjoys big margins among minority voters, who are principally African-Americans, in these states.
But Obama's stronger performance among blue-collar whites is the critical dynamic in these Rustbelt states because they constitute such a large share of the electorate there, and minorities represent a smaller portion than they do nationally. (Minorities, primarily African-Americans, last time represented just under one-in-five voters in Ohio and Michigan, and only about one-in-ten in both Iowa and Wisconsin; and Obama's campaign does not expect that to increase much next week.) In all, these patterns of support were enough to provide Obama leads of three percentage points in the Wisconsin survey, five in Ohio, and six in Iowa and Michigan. Some other surveys show narrower gaps — and the Romney camp argues that its private polling put it in a much stronger position in Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa — but public polls almost all show a consistent Obama lead in these metal-bending states.
Across several of these dimensions, the story looks quite different in the Sunbelt, according to surveys released since Wednesday in Virginia and Florida (by Quinnipiac) and Colorado (by CNN/ORC). In each of these states, Obama faces an even deeper deficit than nationally among blue-collar white men; the new polls show him winning just 27 percent of them in Florida, and 29 percent in both Virginia and Colorado. (The most recent Marist Poll in North Carolina last month showed Obama winning only about one-fifth of non-college white men there.) Among blue-collar white women, the so-called waitress moms, Obama draws only 32 percent in Virginia, 40 percent in Florida and a more competitive 48 percent in Colorado, the polls found. (The most recent Marist North Carolina survey placed Obama at just 36 percent with those women there.) Still, Obama's performance with non-college whites across each of the Sunbelt states lags well behind his showing in the key Rustbelt battlegrounds.
And just as in the Rustbelt, Obama is struggling across the Sunbelt among college-educated white men, who tend to respond well to Republican small government arguments. The new Quinnipiac and Marist polls found Obama winning just 37 percent of those men in Ohio, 39 percent in Virginia, 40 percent in Florida and Wisconsin, and 43 percent in Iowa-all close to his 39 percent showing with them in the first two weeks of the national ABC/Washington Post tracking poll. (Last month's Marist survey in North Carolina gave him a comparable 38 percent of them.) Only Colorado breaks the pattern: Obama draws 51 percent of those white-collar white men in the CNN poll.
In the Sunbelt, Obama's hopes of overcoming his combined deficit among blue-collar whites of both genders, and (in most places) the college-educated men, rest on strong showings among the college-educated white women and the growing minority population. Quinnipiac found Obama winning 58 percent of those well-educated white women in Virginia and 46 percent in Florida, in each case his best showing among whites. The CNN survey likewise found Obama winning a crushing 59 percent of college-white women in Colorado, virtually identical to the margin that allowed Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in 2010 to overcome a deficit comparable to Obama's among blue-collar men.
The President is also running well among minorities, winning about three-fourths of them in the Florida survey and over four-fifths in Virginia; he's likely to exceed four-fifths as well in Nevada, the Sunbelt battleground leaning most clearly in his direction. With these voters, turnout will be key. In 2008, minorities, many of them Hispanics, represented about 30 percent of the vote in Florida, Virginia, and Nevada and about 20 percent in Colorado; the Obama team expects all of those numbers to grow in 2012, most quickly in Nevada and Florida. Together, these patterns of support showed Obama leading by one percentage point in the new Florida poll and two in both Virginia and Colorado. But Romney has shown better in other surveys in these states, and except for Nevada, more public polls show Romney leading in the Sunbelt-especially in North Carolina and Florida-than in the Rustbelt.
In the Sunbelt, the key question is whether Obama's margins among minorities and suburban, socially-liberal women-can overcome what could be crushing deficits among working-class whites and generally weak numbers among upscale white men. In the Rustbelt, the pivotal question is whether Obama can continue to run far better among working-class whites than anywhere else. On his narrow path to reelection, the president is navigating not one tightrope, but two.
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