What Unites Obama's Coalition — and What Could Divide It

President Obama speaks about the sequester, as he stands with emergency responders, a group of workers the White House says could be affected if state and local governments lose federal money as a result of budget cuts, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)  (National Journal)

One conclusion that jumps from the Pew Research Center/USA Today national survey released Thursday is that the coalition that reelected President Obama last fall remains in step behind him — and is largely unified behind the key elements of his increasingly aggressive second-term agenda. But the poll also suggests that failure to generate more-rapid economic recovery could nonetheless strain the powerful coalition Obama has assembled.

Obama won reelection last fall behind strong performances among groups in what I've called the "coalition of the ascendant": minorities, young people, and college-educated white women. That allowed him to overcome cavernous deficits among blue-collar, older and rural whites.

At National Journal's request, Pew analyzed the results among those groups from their new national survey, which explored attitudes on an unusually wide range of issues. The results found that Obama's core groups express solid support for his central priorities, with very few exceptions.

Overall, the survey put Obama's approval rating at 51 percent — almost exactly replicating his share of the vote last November. For all of his key groups, his approval ratings today remain close to his vote shares against Republican Mitt Romney. The survey put his approval among African-Americans at 91 percent (compared to his vote of 93 percent in November), among Hispanics at 68 percent (compared to 71 percent in November), college-educated white women at 48 percent (compared to 46 percent), and adults ages 18 to 29 at 57 percent (compared to 60 percent). Considering that several percent of those in each group described themselves as undecided on Obama's performance, those numbers suggest almost no change from his support in the election.

The poll indicates that the issue agenda Obama is advancing could reinforce that support. On immigration, for instance, the survey found that adults divided exactly in half, with 49 percent saying the top priority of reform should be "creating a way for illegal immigrants already here to become citizens if they meet certain requirements" and 47 percent prioritizing "better border security and stronger enforcement of our immigration laws."

But among Obama's key groups, 62 percent of African-Americans, 79 percent of Hispanics, 65 percent of all nonwhites, 57 percent of college-educated women, and 60 percent of young adults all pick the pathway to citizenship as their top priority.

On the broad question of whether it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns or to control gun ownership, adults split about evenly too, with 46 percent emphasizing ownership and 50 percent limits. But 71 percent of African-Americans, 78 percent of Hispanics, 71 percent of all nonwhites, and 55 percent of college-educated white women prioritized gun control; young people lean narrowly in that direction.

Obama also draws majority support from his key groups on his specific gun-control proposals: banning high-capacity magazines and assault weapons and imposing background checks on sales at gun shows. (The one exception is that young people provide only plurality support for the magazine limits.) The college-educated white women, with whom Obama lost ground from 2008 to 2012, are especially enthusiastic; at least two-thirds support his position on each question.

Likewise, Obama's key groups all express majority support for emphasizing the development of alternative energy sources rather than fossil fuels (though African-Americans split more closely), and for imposing "stricter emission limits on power plants in order to address climate change." The poll found those ideas to be especially popular among young people, with about seven in 10 supporting the green position on each question.

Raising the minimum wage and insisting that any further fiscal deal include both tax increases and spending cuts likewise won support from preponderant majorities in Obama's coalition, the poll found. Over eight in 10 nonwhites back him on both questions.

Groups outside of Obama's coalition were usually less enthusiastic about these ideas. For instance, only about two in five noncollege white men backed either a ban on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines. Fully 71 percent of noncollege white men prioritize gun rights over gun control, and by narrow majorities so do the college-educated white men, working-class white women, and whites ages 50-64. About three-fifths of noncollege and middle-aged whites identified border security, rather than a pathway to citizenship, as their top priority for immigration reform.

Yet many of the ideas Obama is pushing also found substantial support among groups that resisted him in both 2008 and 2012. Solid majorities of noncollege and older whites, for instance, backed the minimum-wage increase. Even noncollege whites and college-educated white men would stress renewable energy over fossil-fuel development. The assault-weapons ban generated substantial majority support from the college-educated white men, noncollege white women, and older whites. Background checks on sales at gun shows won support from over three-fourths of every group analyzed, including noncollege white men.

Much of this support could be fragile, since the survey did not test how much of it survives counterarguments from conservatives that these groups often find persuasive. While majorities of the GOP leaning groups said they favored tougher regulation of power plants to combat climate change, other surveys suggest that they (or even the Democratic-leaning groups) would not remain as enthusiastic if critics could convince them that it would raise electricity prices. Likewise, support for a minimum-wage increase could be strained by arguments, not tested here, that it would cost jobs.

Another red flag for Obama is that younger whites show conspicuously less enthusiasm for his approach on some of these issues than other groups more firmly in his camp. Obama's support among whites under age 30 fell from 55 percent in 2008 to 44 percent in 2012, and several of his ideas here also face turbulence among them.

In the survey, younger whites (defined here as those 18-34 to generate a sample large enough to measure) strongly favor gun rights over gun control and tougher border security over a pathway to citizenship; most also oppose the bans on both assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. They tilt back in Obama's direction on energy issues and the minimum wage.

Most worrisome for Obama was the poll's finding that just 40 percent of adults approved of his handling of the economy, while 56 percent disapproved. Strikingly that discontent extended beyond groups like noncollege whites, always dubious of him, into constituencies at the heart of his coalition. While about two-thirds of African-Americans gave him positive marks for his economic performance, they were joined by only 52 percent of Hispanics, 44 percent of college-educated white women — and, most notably, just 40 percent of all adults ages 18 to 29 and only 31 percent of younger whites. Indeed, Obama's economic approval rating among all whites stood at a microscopic 31 percent.

Those numbers underscore the concern of a senior White House adviser, who argued in a recent interview that while issues like climate, gun control, and immigration reform are all providing Obama opportunities to connect his coalition with the Democratic Party in a way that could outlast him, the success of that project will also pivot on his ability to deliver better economic results for average families.

"As we think about issues like immigration, climate and guns, we realize the president was reelected because people trusted his approach on the economy," the adviser said. "He made it somewhat better, but the job was not done. If we do not focus on completing the middle-class project that he started "¦ then nothing else we do matters."