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Obama the Vulnerable

The US president’s new coalition is smaller than the one in 2008 due to his failure to do much for the personal economic state of his people, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

india Updated: Nov 06, 2012 01:50 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Three months ago, it was assumed Barack Obama the Sequel was an inevitability. Now, he is dependent on the whims of residents of Cuyahoga County and similar dots of Midwestern land for his political survival. How did this come to pass?

Under normal circumstances, Obama would have been a shoo-in. He has the advantage of incumbency, oratorical deftness that only disappears in high-altitude Denver, and, most important, a solid demographic advantage.

Variously called the Rising American Electorate or the New New Deal, this advantage lies in the ability of Democratic presidential candidates to increasingly count on a bedrock of minorities, urban professionals, youth and single women voter support.

An unbeatable Democratic candidate is one who merges this new coalition with a large chunk of his party’s more traditional white working class base. The Obama coalition of 2008 won over 52% of the popular vote because it was able to merge all these groups.

This coalition seemed to be holding when this election’s campaign began. The Republicans were in a suicidal battle between their urban corporate wing and their small-town social conservatives. Obama faced no serious intra-party opposition.

In hindsight, the original Obama coalition was less coherent than was realised. It just hadn’t been tested. A large part of why it held together was because Romney was a bit of a mystery to many. He was a Mormon, a multi-millionaire, a missionary and a multinational exec. For many, he might as well have come from Mars.

The presidential debates, if they did anything at all, provided the electorate a chance to see the Republican as moderate and presidential. Romney had already been trending positively with white workers and the elderly. The debates gave him a chance to show he wasn’t a right-wing nutcase. The effect on women, for example, was remarkable. After making it clear he wouldn’t be sending US troops to Syria or back into Afghanistan, Romney halved his gender deficit with Obama in a few days.

What has been revealed the past few weeks has been hairline fractures among the Obamaniacs caused by joblessness, dashed liberal expectations and the jadedness of the president himself.

This manifested itself in two ways.

One, disaffection among Obama supporters has meant that many are threatening to stay home. In a poll of the roughly 40% of US voters who have decided to stay home, over 60% favoured the Democratic candidate — but weren’t prepared to walk to the polling booth to show it. Turnout is in many way the great undecided in this election. Neither candidate is quite sure how many of his supporters will stay home. Republicans think they have a more energised base. It is the one variable which could cost him the election.

Two, the white working class, a pillar of the Democratic Party since the New Deal, have defected in droves. Romney’s support among this group is now so overwhelming that the Republican Party is in danger of becoming a party of only white hardhats and their grandparents. This class is also a bit suspicious of Wall Street, hence Obama’s frontal advertising assault on Romney’s opposition to the car industry bailout.

A more subtle defection has been among women voters. The pro-Obama site, democracycorps.com, showed Romney doubling his favourable rating among women from September 2011 to September 2012 from 21% to 40%. He still trails the US president, but by only a handful of percentage points.

The old Obama coalition has shrunk. At the heart of this is the failure of his administration to do much for the personal economic state of most Americans. Tracking four economic woes — reduced wages, no job, no health insurance and mortgage problems — between 2010 and 2012, polls show that Americans have not seen their lot better in any of these indices. The president’s steady attacks on outsourcing, his ‘Buffalo to Bangalore line’, were driven by a desire to explain this failure.

Race is also an issue, but a minor one. Obama loses a net two percentage points because of his colour. But he was the same colour in 2008.

Obama’s new coalition, therefore, is at its core minorities and suburban middle-class whites. The poor and the professionals. He is popular with the youth — but they are notoriously bad at casting ballots. And he splits the women vote. This is a lot smaller than the winning coalition he had in 2008. Which is why Obama the Invincible is suddenly Obama the Vulnerable. And why Romney has been able to make this US presidential race so close.

If Obama pulls it off, and it seems likely he will because of an electoral college system that benefits candidates whose support is more evenly geographically spread, he will take down a number of political science axioms. One was that no president can be re-elected with a jobless rate of over 8%. More significantly, he will complete a sociological revolution in the US, and within the Democratic Party, by leading a major US political party to the White House with less than one-third of white male votes. This could be a political leitmotif for decades to come.