White Working-Class Voters Expanding Presidential Battleground Map

Josh Kraushaar

I’ve got to admit, it’s somewhat comical to watch the debate over polls that regularly takes place on Twitter. Partisans on both sides are questioning samples, methodology, and each other. And while they’re obsessing over the minute details of often-questionable polling, they’re missing the fundamental story of this election: President Obama is on track to perform at a historically low level among white voters, and he needs to compensate by attracting overwhelming support from minorities, along with a big turnout by them.

The story is the same no matter which poll is your personal favorite. Pew, one of the most respected in the business, showed Obama winning only 37 percent of likely white voters. The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed Obama stuck at 36 percent. Gallup’s weekly tracking found his approval rating among whites at 38 percent. Even Public Policy Polling, a Democratic robo-polling firm skewered by the Right, finds Obama’s job approval at 39 percent in its tracking. If Obama can’t hit 40 percent, he badly needs to maximize the minority and youth turnout that comprise his base.

That’s why we’ve heard so much about the vaunted Obama campaign turnout machine. It’s a downright necessity when the campaign needs to mobilize segments of the electorate that, historically, are less likely to show up at the polls. In the election campaign’s final stretch, Obama has been able to remain very competitive in states with these demographic characteristics--Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina--and holds a small advantage in Nevada. But in these first three states, Obama is struggling with both white voters and seniors, whose support is below his already-weak national averages. That’s creating a scenario where the president faces a high bar to expand the minority share of electorate even further over 2008 to compensate.

Indeed, one of the reasons polling tends to be most volatile in these states is that the makeup of the electorate will determine the winner. There aren’t a whole lot of persuadable voters here. Polls showing Romney ahead assume the electorate will be whiter and older; polls showing Obama leading tend to expect a more diverse electorate. The winner in these states will be which campaign is best able to turn out its base. Early vote tallies in all three states suggest that Democrats are coming close to hitting their turnout targets, but with GOP enthusiasm surging substantially versus a weak showing in 2008.

Meanwhile, the Obama turnout machine isn’t quite as valuable in the more homogeneous battleground states--Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire--that make up the president’s firewall. These states have older, whiter electorates. The name of the game for Democrats here is persuasion as much as mobilization. In Ohio, Obama’s campaign strategy is clear: making Romney’s opposition to the auto bailout a central part of the bid to hold onto enough working-class whites to win the state.

But it’s also becoming clear that it’s not just Ohio, Iowa, and Wisconsin that are looking winnable for Romney--it’s the entire swath of competitive Midwestern and Rust Belt states that share demographic similarities, and where Republicans made significant gains during the 2010 midterms. Obama holds a small lead in Ohio thanks to the auto bailout, but the issues driving the electorate in neighboring states are more favorable to Republicans.

The Obama campaign is on the air in Minnesota, and it sent former President Clinton to Minneapolis and Duluth to shore up his standing this week. That comes in the wake of a Minneapolis Star-Tribune poll showing Obama with a mere 3-point lead, 47 percent to 44 percent. Obama is bleeding support from working-class white voters upstate over his health care law and energy policies. Also worth remembering: Obama won Minnesota by a narrower margin in 2008 (55 percent of the vote) than he did Wisconsin (56 percent of the vote), which has long been considered a toss-up.

In Pennsylvania, Romney’s debate performances narrowed his once-imposing deficit in the Philadelphia suburbs, and his campaign is making a play to turn the western part of the state Republican. The Romney campaign is up with an energy ad attacking Obama on coal and cap-and-trade, a message aimed at converting disaffected Democrats around the Pittsburgh media market. A Philadelphia Inquirer poll conducted last week showed Obama with a 49 percent to 43 percent lead, with GOP internal polling showing the race even tighter.

In Michigan, the Obama campaign just announced it was buying costly Detroit television for the final week of the campaign to counter a multimillion-dollar buy from Romney’s super PAC. Expect Obama to blast Romney on the auto bailout and Romney to criticize the president over his record on welfare, both issues particularly potent with blue-collar workers prevalent in the state. A Detroit News/WDIV poll out on Wednesday showed Obama’s lead down to 3 points, 48 percent to 45 percent, the narrowest it’s been in a while.

The election isn’t just coming down to Ohio. There’s plenty of evidence that, given Obama’s struggles with white working-class voters, he could face some unexpected headwinds in states that have been in the Democratic column during presidential years since at least 1988. Obama’s campaign is acknowledging as much with its late television buys and surrogate campaign stops. Romney is currently trailing in the aforementioned states by several points, but Obama is under the 50 percent mark. If undecided voters break to the challenger, all bets are off.

The presidential election looks like it will come down to which candidate is able to live up to the promise of his coalition. If Obama is able to pick off Florida, Virginia, or North Carolina, he’ll be headed for a second term. If he doesn’t, Romney has a golden opportunity to pull off a Rust Belt surprise on election night.