It is now officially less than a year away from the 2012 elections. The dust from the 2011 elections has settled and several assumptions can be garnered from the results in relation to the 2012 presidential race. 1) The coalition that elected Obama and Democratic majorities in 2008 is in tatters, 2) the moderate suburbs that turned Democratic in 08, Republican in 010, are very up for grabs in 2012, 3) the electorate is dissatified but dislikes major changes regardless (Ohio).
The 2011 election showed that the coalition that gave Obama and the Democrats a massive 2008 victory is now dead and buried. The unruly coalition of young and senior voters, urban and rural, suburban moderate and fiscally liberal voters proved to much to hold together. Combined this with the bad economy in 2010 and it was bound to come apart. This of course means the president’s path to reelection will now have to turn to a set of voters he has struggled with. White voters, specifically blue-collar voters. But more on this in a bit.
The 2011 election results in Loudon County, VA, the very heart of the Obama coalition showcase why this coalition is dead and buried. In this fairly affluent, fairly young, and highly educated white-collar suburb the GOP netted two new state senate seats, three new delegate seats, held all the county supervisor seats and easily held all their senate and delegate seats. The voters in this district went to Obama by over 15 points according to 2008 exit polls. In an off-year election when 2010 has passed and the pendulum of politics has swung back to the middle the fact this white-collar county stayed red says a lot.
Despite the public’s clamoring for change in 08, and then the other way in 2010, voters in the swing state of Ohio showed just how much change can be a double-edged sword. Newly elected GOP Governor John Kasich and his GOP allies in the state legislature earlier in the year pass a massive reform of CBA rights. The measure was put on the ballot for a referendum (Issue 2) and overwhelmingly the new law was overturned. This in turn has given Democrats, and especially Democratic strategists hope that the president can put Ohio back on the map. But not so fast.
Voters in the state also throughly rejected a major tenant of left-wing change. Issue 3, which called for an amendment to the state constitution banning the Individual Mandate passed overwhelmingly. Purely symbolic perhaps, but it should give Democratic strategists pause about pursuing a new strategy targeting whites for the White House’s reelection.
So with the lessons of 2011 past what can the president do to pursue reelection. Unfortunately, there are not many good options. The president really has two chocies. He can try to rebuild his coalition of 2008 of single women, white-collar voters, youth and minorities. But the seniors that backed him in 08 and the suburban vote did not materialize in 2010 as hoped. Many of these same moderate to independent voters went Republican in 2010 and showed no inclination they are coming back to the president based on 2011 results. Furthermore, surveys in key battleground states across the nation show the president continuously underwater with these voters. Yet these same voters are the very voters giving the president the greatest benefit of the doubt. Many still blame Bush for the bad economy, call for Republicans to work with the president, and want jobs to be a top priority. But yet they remain up for grabs in 2012.
The other strategy Democrats could pursue, and one that is likely a necessity to keep several Democratic Senators in the Senate after 2013, is pursue the white blue-collar voters that have never really warmed to the president. These same voters helped put many Congressional Democrats in office in 08 even while voting for John McCain. In 2010 they went all in for Congressional Republicans, turning their backs on anything Democrat. Macomb County, Michigan has been labelled the home of the “Reagan Democrats.” This county went for Lyndon Johnson by 25 points in 1964 and yet by 1984 went for Ronald Reagan by double-digits. In 2008, the county and its blue-collar voters went back to Democrats by an eight point margin. In 2010 they went back to Republicans to the tune of 15 points. How the president and Democrats fare here could say a lot about 2012.
Blue-collar voters have little in common with the 2008 Obama coalition. The Obama coalition is cobbled together out of government dependent voters, technocrats, white-collar suburbanite voters, young voters and minorities. The blue-collar vote is predominately without a college education, white and a mixture of middle and upper-middle class voters. Yet Democrats still see an opportunity to make inroads with these voters. Democrats and the WH cite the fact that blue-collar voters are not necessarily for the GOP protecting tax breaks for the rich or cutting corporate tax rates. By the same token what drove blue-collar voters away from the president was his push for leftist policies and furthering of welfare and affirmative action polices.
Populism could be the tool the president uses to court these voters. In Ohio, the success of repealing SB-5, Democrats believe shows them how to court these voters. Yet they run a risk. Populism runs better with blue-collar voters than white-collar suburbanites. And while blue-collar voters could turn back to the president since Reagan they have leaned right and would likely still favor the GOP nominee heavily. White-collar suburbanites and single woman have traditionally leaned left to centrist and more independent, perhaps telling the left their victory lies with these voters and the states they reside in.
Whichever strategy the president pursues he will have to go all in for. If the president goes for winning suburbanite voters and rebuilding his 08 coalition his electoral strategy would be built off winning states like Nevada, Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado, while holding traditionally left leaning states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania. But if the president goes for winning new blue-collar votes his electoral plan for victory would lie on winning traditional swing states such as Ohio and Florida as well as winning the left-leaning Rustbelt. Going half-way for either strategy is unlikely to work. It would be hard to present a unified message and even more one set of voters is likely to be turned off by the message the president uses to court the others.
The election of 2011 portends a hard-fought 2012 president contest. It also presents the president and Democrats with a dilemma about what strategy to pursue to hold the White House. Try and rebuild the Obama coalition of 08 or woo blue-collar voters into the Democratic fold and win on a new coalition of voters. Either way, the election will be close.