Does Obama Have a Problem With His Base?

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POLITICS JULY 13, 2011

Does Obama Have a Problem With His Base?

I recently argued that an increased deficit among the white working class could sink Obama’s re-election chances. That’s particularly the case if Obama is already weakened by relatively poor support from his base. Right now, that looks like a distinct possibility.

This can be seen by looking at Obama’s two key base demographics: the minority vote and the youth vote. Start with minorities, the heart of the Obama coalition. In 2008, Obama received 80 percent support from minorities, who were 26 percent of all voters. Can he replicate that performance in 2012? 

Consider first the probable minority share of the vote in 2012. Recently released data from the 2010 Census have underscored just how fast the minority population is growing in the US. Over the last decade, the minority population increased by 30 percent (Hispanics alone grew by 43 percent), while the white population grew by a mere 1 percent. Because of this dramatic difference in growth rates, minorities accounted for virtually all (92 percent) of the country's population growth over the decade. And the overall minority share of the population ticked steadily upward while the white share declined. The 2010 minority share of the population was 36 percent, up more than 5 percentage points over 2000. That's a rate of increase of around half a point a year over the decade.

Applying that rate to the four years between 2008 and 2012 indicates that the minority share of voters should be about 28 percent in 2012. Of course, that rate is based on the overall minority population not minority voters. Should the trend rate of increase be lowered to account for this difference? No, if anything it should be increased. Exit poll data show minority vote share increasing at a faster rate last decade than overall population growth, so a 2 point estimated trend increase in minority vote share may actually be conservative.

So if the electorate stays on trend, the minority share of voters in 2012 should not only match but exceed its share in 2008, significantly helping Obama’s re-election bid. But will these voters show up in their expected numbers? That is where Obama could run into trouble. The real guarantor that they will is voter enthusiasm. Lacking that, the expected increase in minority vote share might well not appear. After all, in the 2010 election, when enthusiasm was not high, minority vote share dropped to 23 percent, a poor performance even for an off-year election.

And enthusiasm does appear to be a question at this point. As documented in a recent Pew poll, as economic pessimism has mounted, approval of Obama has dropped. And that has definitely affected minority enthusiasm for Obama. Approval of Obama among blacks has declined by 10 points from recent highs and judging from Gallup data (Pew does not break out Hispanics) there has been a decline of similar magnitude among Latinos. Indeed, these data show Obama’s approval rating among Hispanics dipping below 50 percent, a very poor performance among a group who must turn out solidly for minority vote share to increase.

And what about Obama’s 80 percent support from minority voters? Can he plausibly hope to maintain that? That’s a tough target. In the two other presidential elections of the last decade, Democratic Presidential support among minorities was lower: 71 percent in 2004 and 75 percent in 2000.   My estimates suggest that he could live with the mid-range of recent results—75 percent—perhaps driven by some falloff in black support from its astounding 95 level in 2008. But lower than that and I believe his candidacy is seriously weakened.

Obama’s other key demographic is young voters, members of the Millennial generation. In 2008, the 18-29 year old age group (all Millennials) voted 66-32 in his favor and were 18 percent of voters. Moreover, that 18 percent figure actually understated the level of Millennial influence in that election because the 18- to 29-year-old group did not include the oldest Millennials—the 30-year-olds who were born in 1978. Once they are figured in a reasonable estimate is that Millennials were around 20 percent of the vote in 2008.

And that figure should be significantly larger in 2012 as more Millennials enter the voting pool. About 48 million Millennials were citizen-eligible voters in 2008 and they have been increasing at a rate of about 4 million a year. In 2012, when Millennials will be the entire 18-34 age group, there will thus be 64 million Millennial eligible voters, 29 percent of all eligible voters. Assuming a reasonable turnout performance, that should translate into roughly 35 million Millennials who cast ballots in 2012 and an estimated 26 percent of all voters.

Ah but there’s the rub. Will Obama get that reasonable turnout performance? Economic pessimism has also taken its political toll among this group, not surprising given how hard the poor economy has hit young people. In the Pew poll, Obama approval among the 18-29 year old age group was 55 percent against 37 percent disapproval, an 18 point spread that is down considerably from the 30 point spread he recently enjoyed. That does not augur well for 2012 turnout among young voters who are typically the most volatile of all age groups. In the 2010 election, when young voter enthusiasm was tepid, the 18-29 year old vote share dropped from 18 to 12 percent, bad even for an off-year election.

For the same reasons, it will be hard for Obama to retain that 66 percent support level from 2008. Young voters still like Obama but they clearly don’t like him the way they once did. Congressional Democrats received 55-42 support from 18-29 year olds in 2010; it’s possible Obama may not do much better.

What can Obama do to forestall a fatally weak performance among his demographic base? It’s pretty simple if hard to do: replace economic pessimism with economic optimism. That means jobs and growth which have been conspicuously lacking lately. 

Pundits chronically underestimate the extent to which poor economic performance matters among sympathetic Democratic constituencies and chronically overestimate the influence of rhetoric or policies that are deemed insufficiently liberal. The latter may horrify liberal activists and writers—a very small part of Obama’s base—but it is the former that saps the enthusiasm of tens of millions of ordinary rank-and-file Obama supporters who are very sensitive to their pocketbooks and the state of the job market.   Reagan’s base was so enthusiastic in 1984 not just because he did and said conservative things but because he was riding a wave of growth and jobs into that election. They could look at their candidate and say: “See, his policies work; screw you, you dumb liberals.” Obama supporters can make no such claim.

Perhaps the latest abysmal jobs report, released on Friday, will persuade Obama’s team that they need to pay attention to this factor. The deal they are trying to strike on the debt may or may not be a good one and may or may not provide some marginal political help among swing constituencies. But if they want his core supporters to be there in big numbers come November, 2012, it’s time to get back to job #1: jobs.

Ruy Teixeirais a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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