One of the funny things about electoral politics is that you can’t always have the coalition you want, or even the coalition you think you’ll get. When the Democratic Leadership Council was thinking about how to rebrand the party in the late '80s, most figured they’d win back white southerners, like Jimmy Carter and every prior successful Democrat. But the new Democratic coalition was built on disaffection with conservatives, which was most pronounced along the coasts. So while the Republicans can dream of whatever coalition they want, the next successful Republican coalition will be built by capitalizing on disaffection with Democrats.
That’s why the wave of new polls showing a decline in President Barack Obama’s approval rating are potentially important. It’s not that these polls show Republicans poised to take back the White House by 2016, or something. That’s way too far away. Instead, the polls give us an idea of which voters are peeling away from Obama and, therefore, might be most receptive to switching sides if the GOP could craft a message for them. Trying to win over the voters sticking with Obama would presumably be more difficult.
Today’s Pew Research poll paints a clear picture of the Obama defectors. They’re almost exclusively white voters without a college degree. Obama’s standing among minorities, college educated whites, and affluent whites has actually improved since the final Pew Research poll before last November’s presidential election. Instead, Obama’s support among white working-class voters has taken a huge hit, opening an unprecedented 41 point education gap among white voters. Incredibly, the poll now even shows Obama with a stronger approval rating among affluent whites than downscale whites—something that’s never happened for a Democrat in a presidential election.
The source of the collapse isn't clear, but Obama's resilience with minorities and well-educated voters is consistent with the possibility that cultural issues like immigration, gun control, and Trayvon are driving the shifts in the president's numbers. If this shift lasts, it lends additional credibility to the argument that the GOP needs to develop a better message for white working-class voters. For now, they’re the voters who seem most dissatisfied with the Democrats. It suggests that the GOP would be wise to focus on winning over the Midwest, where Obama’s approval rating is now at minus-23 among white voters. That’s consistent with recent polling in Iowa, where Quinnipiac shows Obama’s numbers falling off the table.
But these numbers also show the difficulty of winning with gains among white working class voters alone. Despite Obama’s monumental collapse among white working-class voters, his approval rating is only at minus-5 among registered voters. That might seem like a silly complaint, since the GOP would gladly take a 5-point win in a presidential election. But the GOP won’t sweep the white working-class voters who supported Obama in 2012 but now disapprove of his performance. More than half of them are self-identified Democrats—and it’s tough to imagine that most won’t return to the next Democratic nominee. And if these Democratic white working-class voters ultimately come home, then Democrats would still win, narrowly, on the strength of their resilient "new coalition" of minorities and well-educated whites.
Additional gains among white working class voters will almost certainly be part of the next winning GOP coalition. But it’s hard to win with narrow gains concentrated among a single demographic group. At some point, the GOP will reach the point of diminishing returns, where they start running into the problem of ideology and partisan loyalties. That seems to have happened (at least in this poll) in the South, where Obama hasn’t lost very much additional ground among white voters since last November’s election. And the Electoral College discourages narrow gains: The GOP needs to win back states like Virginia, Colorado, and Florida, where there are fewer white working-class voters than the national average. So it would be prudent for Republicans to broaden their appeal across the board, even if the newest polls suggest they have a particularly fruitful opportunity among downscale whites.