Obama's Risky Campaign Strategy
The campaign's narrow appeals to particular voting blocs could alienate other Democratic or swing voters.
BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2012
Barack Obama's election seemed to vindicate the 2002 book "The Emerging Democratic Majority." John Judis and Ruy Teixeira argued that demographic changes made Democratic dominance inexorable, as racial and ethnic minorities and highly educated professionals grew as proportions of the population.
Sure enough, although John McCain outpolled Mr. Obama 55% to 43% among whites, the Democrat won a solid victory thanks to large majorities of blacks (95%), Hispanics (67%), under-30 voters (66%), the unmarried (65%), and holders of advanced degrees (58%).
But the Democratic majority that emerged in 2008 quickly faded. Since Mr. Obama became president, Republicans have enjoyed a string of electoral victories. What happened?
Although Mr. Obama benefited from the demographic trends Messrs. Judis and Teixeira had noted, he also was running against a dismal Republican status quo, as a challenger in a recession. Mr. Obama cultivated an image as a unifier able to transcend partisan, ideological and racial divides.
Four years later, he is a divisive incumbent defending a grim status quo of his own. Having lost the broad appeal he enjoyed in 2008, he is making narrow appeals to particular voting blocs with the apparent aim of shoring up support and turnout. He's counting on Judis-Teixeira demographics to carry him to re-election.
To appeal to single women, he picked a fight with the Catholic Church by refusing a conscience exemption from the ObamaCare birth-control mandate. For Hispanics, there was the promise of lax immigration enforcement against illegal aliens who arrived in the U.S. as children. His "evolution" on same-sex marriage seemed designed to appeal not just to gays but also to young voters, whose attitudes on the subject tend to be liberal.
But these calculated overtures carry risks. In appealing to particular demographics, the president may be alienating other Democratic or swing voters. Mr. Obama received 49% of the votes of churchgoing Catholics in 2008. Picking a fight with the church seems a sure way to bring that number down. The immigration move may boost Hispanic support in Colorado and Nevada, but polls suggest it hurts among independents in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Same-sex marriage is especially unpopular among blacks. This is the most reliably Democratic voting bloc, and no one expects that to change this year. But even a modest drop-off in turnout or support could hurt Mr. Obama. According to exit polls, blacks made up 13% of the 2008 electorate, up from 11% in 2004. That's a difference of some 3.5 million votes. Mr. Obama's 95% support does not seem like a dramatic improvement from John Kerry's 88%, but it amounts to roughly another 1.5 million votes. Add it all up, and the improvement in Democratic performance among blacks between 2004 and 2008 accounted for more than half of Mr. Obama's nationwide popular-vote margin of 9.5 million.
To defend the black vote, Obama supporters have frequently appealed to fears of Republican racism. Speaking to the NAACP's annual convention this week, Attorney General Eric Holder portrayed anti-voter-fraud efforts as "political pretexts to disenfranchise American citizens." When the same convention booed Mitt Romney's speech, Obama backers like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell suggested that the Romney campaign deliberately provoked the boos because, as Mr. O'Donnell put it, "they want the video of their candidate being booed by the NAACP to play in certain racist precincts."
There's a risk here too-that all the talk about racism will put off whites who voted for Mr. Obama because they thought electing a black president would help the country get beyond race. National Journal noted Thursday that the president is at "historic lows" among working-class white men-just 28% and 29% in two recent surveys, down from 39% in 2008. Whites are a shrinking proportion of the electorate, but that doesn't make their votes expendable.
This points to the shortcoming in the analysis of Messrs. Judis and Teixeira: To them, the Democratic glass is always half full. They were prescient in identifying prospective Democratic gains but complacent about possible losses. "If the downturn in West Virginia's economy continues, the state is almost sure to go back to the Democrats," they wrote. Instead Mr. McCain won by 13 points. They classified Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and even Texas as "competitive." All are now regarded as solidly Republican.
Mr. Obama's effort at coalition rebuilding may be his best possible strategy under the circumstances. But his path to re-election would be far clearer if, as in 2008, he had a broad appeal and didn't have to resort to narrow ones. His election showed that the demographic groups of the "emerging Democratic majority" were necessary for victory. This year we'll find out if they are sufficient.
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