Increasingly, the 2012 presidential election appears to be dividing along a pair of fault-lines.
The first is demographic: old versus new America.
President Obama’s re-election depends increasingly on a coalition of minorities and younger voters, the same groups that helped put him in office. Their overall numbers are increasing, but the president’s ability to turn them out this year at anywhere close to 2008 levels remains in doubt (at least among Latinos and younger whites; the black vote is virtually certain to be there again for Obama). Their potential explains why Democrats have sought to portray the election as the future against the past.
Mitt Romney, meantime, is likely to become president only if he can improve on John McCain’s performance among whites, who represent a declining share of the U.S. population. The GOP candidate’s recent campaign swings have been through areas where whites make up a disproportionate share of the population—including portions of the old Midwest Rust belt and southwest Virginia. A potential key to mobilizing conservative whites: voter drives by Christian organizations to sign up millions of unregistered evangelicals; one of Romney’s biggest advantages over Obama, according to the Gallup Poll, comes from religious whites, who favor the Republican by better than two-to-one. But Latinos have yet to warm to the GOP candidate, favoring Obama by 2-1 in several polls.
The other divide of surpassing importance in this year’s presidential election is geographic: it’s the gulf between a relative handful of “battleground” states, which are already getting pounded by campaign commercials, and the rest of the country—where most of America lives—which has largely been spared.
Nationwide, the Obama-Romney matchup has been a statistical dead heat for months. But in the battlegrounds, where the election will actually be decided, the president has opened up a slight—though by no means decisive—edge. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll this week had Obama leading Romney by just three percentage points nationally, the same as the latest Gallup tracking poll. But when the NBC/Journal pollsters separated out responses from a dozen battleground states, Obama’s lead widened, to eight percentage points.
A new partisan analysis by Democracy Corps, a group headed by former Clinton strategist James Carville and Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, reflects similar findings.
The group’s polling showed that Obama’s most recent gains have come disproportionately in battleground states and entirely from what they term the “rising American electorate,” made up of younger voters, unmarried women, Latinos and African Americans—in other words, Obama’s base.
“These voters are beginning to come back,” the Democratic group reports, based on national polling from June 23-27. Obama’s support from voters under age 30 has improved by 15 percentage points since January but remains “still well short of 2008,” while Romney is losing ground among younger whites.
In noting gains for Obama in battleground states, Democracy Corps said that “the shifts there may reflect the sharp attacks on Romney’s record” in Obama’s campaign ads, as well as “better than average economic performance in key states.”
For obvious reasons, partisan polling and analysis should be heavily discounted. But Democracy Corps bolstered its credibility recently when it criticized the Obama campaign for trying to convince voters that things were getting better in America. In a slap widely circulated through mainstream news accounts and among bloggers across the political spectrum, Carville and Greenberg warned fellow Democrats: “We will face an impossible headwind in November if we do not move to a new narrative, one that contextualizes the recovery but, more importantly, focuses on what we will do to make a better future for the middle class.”
Its latest analysis said that Romney’s overall negative rating (45 percent) is in “dangerous territory for a presidential nominee and does not appear to be improving,” another possible result of the anti-Romney attack ads that Obama is running in key states. The presidential election, the Democratic group concludes, is “tough but winnable” for Obama.