Obama's Hope: A Younger, More Diverse Electorate

Dec 1, 2011
Originally published on December 1, 2011 7:32 pm

The American electorate is getting more diverse, more educated and younger. These demographic trends seem to suggest that voters could, in theory at least, be more Obama-friendly in 2012, especially in some key states. But it's not clear whether these shifts can outweigh the dragging economy and the president's dismal approval ratings.

At President Obama's re-election headquarters in Chicago, there is one overriding article of faith: Despite all of his troubles, Obama's path to victory is still wider than it was for other recent Democratic candidates. Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt says the Obama team will never have the problem Al Gore and John Kerry faced — a race that comes down to one state like Florida or Ohio.

"That means not only returning to those states that we were competitive in in 2008," LaBolt says, "but also looking for potential pickup opportunities where the demographics have changed over the past four years."

The changes in the age and ethnicity of voters made the Democrats' playing field bigger in 2008 and could, theoretically, expand it further in 2012. Ruy Teixeira just completed a study of voters at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

"If you look at the national data," says Teixeira, "Obama should have another couple of percentage points in the electorate for minorities to work with, probably also an increase of a percentage point in white college graduates and probably an overall decline of 3 points in white working-class voters who were his worst group last time by far. He lost them by 18 points."

There also will be about 16 million more potential young voters in 2012 than were eligible to vote four years ago, Teixeira says. Young voters were among Obama's strongest supporters in 2008.

Demographic changes made states like Colorado, Nevada, Virginia and North Carolina winnable for Democrats in 2008.

Recent surges in the number of Hispanics in Arizona and Georgia could make those states potentially friendlier to Democratic candidates as well next year. Teixeira thinks similar population shifts could make holding on to Pennsylvania, where the president campaigned Wednesday, a little bit easier.

"Pennsylvania's actually shifting fairly rapidly demographically, especially compared to other, kind of, Rust Belt-type states," says Teixeira. "That's obviously of some help to him, all else equal."

But all else is not equal this year.

Demography As Destiny?

Republicans beg to differ with the demography as destiny theory. Notable among them is Karl Rove. He disagrees with assumptions that young voters in 2012 will vote as they did in 2008.

Rove was the architect of President George W. Bush's re-election campaign in 2004. That campaign managed to find more Republican voters than Democrats had thought possible — just like the Obama team did with Democratic voters in 2008. Still, Rove doesn't believe it can happen again in 2012.

"Think about this," he says, "Overall decline in [Obama's] job approval rating from the time of his inauguration among all groups is 24 [percentage] points. College graduates [are] down 24, Hispanics [are] down 23, young people [are] down 27 [percentage points]. Many of these people still like him personally and have fond feelings towards him, but they're disappointed with what he's done, with what he's promised, with how he's conducted himself in office, so it's hard to win them back unless conditions change."

The Obama campaign is determined to try to expand the electorate again — even if conditions don't change politically.

Preparing To Act

Democrats had a dress rehearsal of sorts last month in the off-year elections. In North Carolina, for instance, Republican strategist Chris Sinclair saw his candidate for mayor of Raleigh swamped by an effective and stealthy Democratic operation to boost voter turnout for its candidate of choice.

"When we woke up after the election," says Sinclair, "we soon realized that Organizing for America [aligned with the Democratic National Committee] was heavily involved in these races, and what we found was it was a dry run for 2012."

Sinclair says the Democrats did it the old-fashioned way: "By identifying their base, and getting them out to the polls. From what I understand they knocked on 44,000 doors across this county [and] they shipped in volunteers from out of state to stay with their local volunteers to help bring out the votes, so it was very comprehensive."

Obama was back in community organizer mode himself this week, with the launch of his first TV ad for the campaign.

In the ad, aimed at recruiting volunteers, Obama says: "It starts with one person making a decision ... and before long, neighborhoods come together. Communities organize. A movement builds."

There's no doubt that over the long term, the growth in the numbers of Hispanics, young people and college graduates, paired with a decline in the numbers of white working class voters, favors the Democrats. The question for Obama is whether those trends are strong enough to offset the economic headwinds he faces now.

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Whoever wins the GOP nomination, the poor economy will likely work in his favor in next year's general election. But President Obama has a few advantages of his own. The electorate is getting more diverse, younger and more educated - theoretically, more Obama-friendly. But NPR's Mara Liasson reports that it's not yet clear if those demographic trends will be enough to offset the president's current liabilities.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: In Chicago, at the president's re-election headquarters, there is one overriding article of faith: Despite all the president's troubles, his path to victory is still wider than any other recent Democratic candidate. Spokesman Ben LaBolt says the Obama team will never have the problem Al Gore or John Kerry faced: a race that comes down to just one state, like Florida or Ohio.

BEN LABOLT: That means not only returning to those states that we were competitive in, in 2008, but also looking for potential pickup opportunities, where the demographics have changed over the past four years.

LIASSON: Those changes in the age and ethnicity of voters made the Democrats playing field bigger in 2008 and theoretically could make it even bigger in 2012. Ruy Teixeira just completed a study of voters for the liberal group Campaign for American Progress.

RUY TEIXEIRA: If you look at the national data, Obama should have another couple of percentage points in the electorate for minorities to work with, probably also an increase of a percentage point in white college graduates and probably an overall decline of three points in white working-class voters, who were his worst group last time by far; he lost him by 18 points.

LIASSON: And he'll have about 16 million more young voters than four years ago. These changes made states like Colorado, Nevada, Virginia and North Carolina winnable for Democrats in 2008. And next year, they have the Obama campaign talking about competing in Arizona and Georgia where surges in the numbers of Hispanics make those states potentially more friendly to Democrats. And, says Teixeira, similar demographic changes could make holding onto Pennsylvania - where the president campaigned yesterday - a little bit easier.

TEIXEIRA: Pennsylvania is actually shifting fairly rapidly demographically, especially compared to other rust belt-type states. That's obviously of some help to him all else equal.

LIASSON: But all else is not equal this year, and that's where Republicans beg to differ with the demography-as-destiny theory.

KARL ROVE: This assumes that simply because there's slightly more young people in the 2012 mix, that all of those young people are going to vote as they did in 2008.

LIASSON: That's Karl Rove. In 2004, he was the architect of President George Bush's re-election campaign, a campaign that went out and found more Republican voters than the Democrats thought possible, just like the Obama team did with Democratic voters in 2008. But Rove doesn't believe it can happen again in 2012.

ROVE: Think about this: Overall decline in his job approval rating from the time of his inauguration among all groups is 24 points. College graduates down 24, Hispanics down 23, young people down 27. Many of these people still like him personally and have fond feelings towards him, but they're disappointed with what he's done, with what he's promised, with how he's conducted himself in office. So, you know, it's hard to win them back, unless conditions change.

LIASSON: But even if they don't, the Obama campaign is determined to try to expand the electorate again. They had a dress rehearsal of sorts last month in the off-year elections. In North Carolina, Republican strategist Chris Sinclair saw his candidate for mayor of Raleigh swamped by an effective and stealthy Democratic turnout operation.

CHRIS SINCLAIR: And when we woke up after the election, we soon realized that Organizing for America was heavily involved in these races, and what we found was it was a dry run for 2012.

LIASSON: And Sinclair says the Democrats did it the old-fashioned way.

SINCLAIR: By identifying their base and getting them out to the polls, from what I understand, they knocked on 44,000 doors across this county. They shipped in volunteers from out of state to stay with their local volunteers, to help bring out the votes, so it was very comprehensive.

LIASSON: And this week, President Obama himself was back in community organizer mode. He launched his first TV ad of the campaign aimed at recruiting volunteers.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It starts with one person making a decision that things need to change, and they're going to help change them. That person finds another person who shares their values. They go out and find a few more. And before long, neighborhoods come together. Communities organize. A movement builds.

LIASSON: There's no doubt that over the long term, these demographic trends - growth in Hispanics, young people and college graduates and a drop in the white working class - favor the Democrats. The question for President Obama is whether those trends are strong enough now to offset the economic headwinds he faces. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.