In 2008, during his otherwise-solid election victory, Obama lost the white working class vote by 18 points. In 2010, however, things got much worse: Congressional Democrats’ experienced a catastrophic 30 point deficit among the same group. While the first number is a figure Obama could live with repeating, the second could very well prove fatal.
Indeed, if Republicans can replicate that 30 point deficit in 2012—a margin which seems increasingly possible given the recent bad news about the economy—Obama will have little to no room for error among his other constituencies. For example, even if, as expected, the share of minority voters increases from 26 to around 28 percent in the next election and Obama receives the typical 75 percent of that vote, while the share of white working class voters declines by another 3 percentage points, a 30 point hole in Obama’s white working class support would mean that the overall support he needs to win the election was teetering right on the knife’s edge. In such a scenario, Obama would have to hold essentially all of his white college graduate support from 2008 (47 percent, a historic high for Democrats) to be assured of victory.
But how likely is such a white working class surge toward the GOP in 2012? From the standpoint of Obama and the Democrats, scarily so. It’s important to remember that this is the group that has been the bulwark of every GOP victory going back to Richard Nixon in 1968. And it is the group recently termed by journalist Ronald Brownstein as, “[T]he most pessimistic group in America.” In a recent Pew Economic Mobility Project poll, only one-third of working class whites thought today’s children would live better than they do, far below the levels of confidence expressed by minorities and college-educated whites. And in a recent National Journal poll, only a third of white working class voters took a positive view of recent Census findings on the country’s fast growing minority population, with 58 percent endorsing instead the pessimistic view that these trends are “happening too quickly,” and undermining fundamental American values at a time of high unemployment.