Michael Tomasky: How Obama Can Get to 270 Electoral Votes

A new study shows how Obama might be able to use demographics to win reelection, says Michael Tomasky. Plus, Michael Medved on how demographics could actually doom the Dems.

Well, now that it’s official that bipartisan compromise has no future in Washington, it’s time for President Obama to put aside once and for all the idea of playing patty-cake with these people and instead focus ruthlessly on getting to 270 electoral votes. The recent debate among pundits has been over the question of whether the path to 270 for Obama runs through Virginia and North Carolina and Colorado (and appeals to “new-economy voters”) or through Ohio and the Rust Belt (and more class-based appeals). It’s a silly debate. The answer is both. An important new paper by two leading electoral demographers on the progressive side of the fence makes the case and is well worth your time (it’s 68 pages), as it’s chockablock with fascinating information about changes in the electorate, both nationwide and in several key states—changes that may well decide the outcome next November.

The paper is “The Path to 270: Demographics Versus Economics in the 2012 Election” by Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin of the Center for American Progress. You can probably figure out from the subtitle that the basic story is that demography favors Obama, while the likely underlying economic picture (i.e., still bleak) favors whoever is running against him. But the deeper story here is this: Obama isn’t going to get his 2008 levels of the white vote. But he can’t quite absorb white-vote totals that look like 2010. And he is going to have to fight hard, and smart, to keep them closer to the former than the latter.

Demographically, everything is moving Obama’s way. The study largely splits the electorate into three groups: minorities; white college-educated voters (WCEs); and the white-working class (WWC), which is defined here and usually as whites without a college degree, which for a range of reasons is the best way to identify that group for voting purposes. And the first thing to look at here is not how Obama does with each, but what share of the total electorate each makes up, because, as the man said, demography is destiny.

The minority share of the electorate was 26 percent in 2008. It’s likely to be 28 percent in 2012. The white working class will continue to shrink. It will make up 3 percent less of the electorate than it did in 2008, dropping from 39 percent to 36 percent. White college graduates will gain 1 percent, from 35 to 36.

These changes obviously favor the incumbent. So now let’s get to vote margins. Obama took 80 percent of the minority population (26 percent of the country) in 2008. Teixeira and Halpin “conservatively” estimate that his share of the minority vote will go down to 75—basically from less enthusiasm, especially from nonblack minority-group voters. But that decline still translates into an ever-so-slightly-higher percentage of the overall vote (21 percent to 20.8 percent), because the voting pool has expanded. So Obama can suffer some decline in margins among minority groups without it being remotely fatal.

More strikingly, he can absorb significant WWC losses and still win the popular vote. Obama lost WCEs by 4 percent in 2008. If he holds that margin, the authors write, he can lose the shrinking WWC by a whopping 30 points (the 2010 margin of Republicans over Democrats among that group) and still win 50–48. But such a scenario is of course unlikely—if he drops among one group, he’ll probably drop among the other. In 2010, when WWCs were going GOP by 30, WCEs went GOP by 19. That would be fatal to Obama. He needs something in between. The authors write that he could replicate John Kerry’s 2004 numbers—losing WCEs by 11 points and the WWC by 23, both more or less smack-dab between the 2008 and 2010 results—and still win the popular vote by 50 to 48.

But of course the popular vote isn’t important. The Electoral College is. So let’s move on to geography. The authors say that Obama’s core states add up to 186 EVs, and the GOP’s, 191. They identify 12 states that are going to decide the winner, in three regions. Obama won all 12 last time, but that seems completely impossible for 2012. The Rust Belt/Midwest states are Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. The Southwest states are Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. The “new South” states are Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia.

There’s a boatload of demographic information on each state, and I don’t have the space to go into all of it. Suffice it to say a couple of things. First, discrepancies in Obama’s vote totals among the two white groups are a whole lot wider than you’d think. For example, he did better among white working-class voters than among white college-educated voters—that’s right, better!—in Michigan and Iowa. And he won them in Wisconsin. Yet he lost WWCs horribly in Pennsylvania (but in 2012, WWCs will make up 5 percent less of the electorate). In the new South states, meanwhile, he did nearly as badly among WCEs as among WWCs—for example, in North Carolina he got 33 percent of the WWCs and 38 percent of the WCEs. Only a huge minority vote won him those states.

Throw it all in the wash and what does it mean? It means first of all that if the economy stinks, none of this demography will matter and Obama will lose. But it also means that he is going to have to assemble different coalitions from battleground state to battleground state around a message that can rally segments of all three groups. For all their differences, there is one thing almost all members of those three groups have in common. They’re part of the 99 percent. The authors want to see “a sustained posture of defending the middle class, supporting popular government programs, and calling for a more equitable tax distribution.” Sounds good to me.