The latest Gallup report, based on a massive sample of more than 39,000 adults, contains troubling news for Democrats. Individuals identifying with the Democratic Party are a smaller share of the American people than they were early in 2008, and their views are less representative of the people as a whole. This means that the Obama team, which faces the crucial choice of either doubling down on its 2008 winning mix of professionals, young people, and minorities or rebuilding support among Independents in the heartland, should emphasize the latter option. Any general election strategy that relies solely on mobilizing the party’s diminished base will have a hard time forging a majority of the popular vote.
Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents now total 43 percent of the people, down from 50 percent in the first quarter of 2008. During the period, Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents rose from 37 to 40 percent. (Pure Independents who don’t lean toward either party rose from 12 to 15 percent of the total.) As a result, the earlier 13-point gap in party identification shrank to only 3 points, which, as Gallup notes, is “more in line with the pattern … in place between 2001 and 2004.”
While the ideological center of gravity of the Democratic Party has moved left, the country as a whole has moved in the opposite direction. In early 2008, 35 percent of Democrats and leaners called themselves liberals, versus 23 percent conservatives. (The rest identified as moderates.) By 2011, the liberal share of the part had risen 2 percentage points to 37 percent, while the conservative share shrank by 3 points, to only 20 percent. At the same time, conservatives increased their share of the total electorate from 40 to 42 percent, while liberals dropped a point to only 21 percent.
These may not appear to be notable changes, but they are. The sample is so large that the margin of error is only plus or minus one percentage point, so nearly all the shifts are statistically significant. And these results are politically significant as well, because they portend a much closer election than 2008 turned out to be. If the electorate of 2011-2012 is closer to the one that prevailed during the first Bush administration, then the Obama campaign would have to do an even better job of mobilizing the base than it did in 2008.
This casts in high relief the fundamental choice facing the Obama team: The first option is to run a campaign that amounts to 2008 on steroids, mobilizing huge numbers of upscale professionals, unmarried women, young adults, and minorities—the coalition that reelected Colorado Senator Michael Bennet in 2010. This approach implies a focus on “new majority” states such as Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, North Carolina, or even Arizona and Georgia, which the Obama team reportedly regards as being within reach. Option two would focus on rebuilding support among Independents, which include large numbers of white working-class and middle-class families—an approach compatible with an all-out effort to win the heartland states stretching from Pennsylvania to Iowa that gave Obama one-third of the 365 electoral votes he ended up winning.
For reasons that I’ve laid out at length in “One Year to Go: Barack Obama’s Uphill Battle for Reelection in 2012,” the latter is the course more likely to succeed in the end. Briefly: It won’t be possible to recreate the political context that permitted the extraordinary mobilization of young adults and Hispanics in 2008. And it’s no accident that no Democrat since JFK has won the presidency without carrying Ohio, which is a demographic, economic, and political microcosm of the country as a whole. Most Democrats remember that Obama’s share of the popular vote topped John Kerry’s by 5 percentage points. They are likely to forget, however that liberals contributed less than one point to that increase, while moderates contributed about two and a half points and conservatives, about one and a half. Reenergizing the party’s liberal base is a necessary but not sufficient condition for victory next year.
This latter strategy—rebuilding support among Independents—implies that Obama’s task is one of persuasion as well as mobilization. He will have to convince some of the voters he has lost since his inauguration to give him a second look and another chance. This may seem to be mission impossible. If it turns out to be, his chances of winning reelection are remote.
William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor for The New Republic.