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White voters: Obama's Achilles' heel?

This article first appeared in The Straits Times on July 30, 2012.

Published on Oct 5, 2012 11:29 AM
Mr Obama at a rally at Dobbins Elementary School in Poland, Ohio, on July 6. He enjoys strong support among minorities, but the soaring jobless rate and his health-care reforms have alienated white voters. - PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

POLAND (Ohio) - The energy level in the room was a tad low and the sense of novelty felt four years ago was noticeably absent.

The one thing that had not changed for United States President Barack Obama when he spoke here one recent Friday morning was the diversity of the crowd that greeted him.

Packed shoulder to shoulder inside a tiny elementary school gym in this small Ohioan town, the 350-strong group of white, black, Hispanic and Asian Americans seemed to display the same portrait of diversity that had propelled him to the White House in 2008.

A similar scene played out in the city of Maumee, also in Ohio, a day earlier. Americans of various races and ethnicities waited in a queue that stretched several hundred metres for hours before Mr Obama was due to speak at a local museum.

"This is America," said freelance photographer Chris Johnson.

However, the cheery outward appearance at such campaign events belies the ominous red lights that have been flashing for Mr Obama's "rainbow coalition".

While he undoubtedly continues to enjoy strong support from minority communities in the US, his approval rating among white voters - who still make up about three-quarters of the electorate despite rapid demographic changes - has fallen so much that some pollsters believe his re-election might be unattainable at this rate.

According to the Gallup polling agency, which has tracked Mr Obama's approval ratings on a weekly basis since January 2009, when he took office, his overall level of support among white voters is now about 38 per cent - a level dangerously close to a 28-year low for the Democrats.

The political implications for the White House incumbent are stark, as a Gallup report last month warned: "Even if Mr Obama were to regain his 2008 level of support among blacks and improve his support somewhat among Hispanics, he could still lose if his support among whites slips any further."

White flight

MR OBAMA'S victory in 2008 was heralded in some quarters as the beginning of a "post-racial America". However, his winning share of the white vote - 43 per cent - was not a breakthrough by any measure.

It was slightly higher than the average margin of 41.5 per cent seen over the previous two decades, but some analysts suspected the reason could be that some three to four million Republican voters sat out the election.

The reality check was swift. Mr Obama's approval rating among white voters began to nosedive from the second half of 2009, as the unemployment rate soared and he pursued health-care reforms unpopular with the Republicans' predominantly white and elderly base.

The backlash culminated in a historic loss for the Democrats in the November 2010 mid-term elections, during which white voters backed Republican legislative candidates by a 60-37 margin. In that period, Mr Obama's share of white voters also fell, from about six in 10 to just three.

He has since recovered some ground, but not enough, as detailed polling studies have shown, to arrest fears that the unprecedented "white flight" of 2010 will continue on Nov 6. The latest Pew survey, for instance, found working-class white voters backing the wealthy Republican challenger Mitt Romney over Mr Obama by 23 percentage points (58-35 per cent).

In an even more worrying trend for Mr Obama, the sharpest declines have occurred in white subgroups that gave him the most support in 2008 - Caucasian youth voters aged 18 to 29 and white women voters with postgraduate degrees. Both groups have posted a nine-point drop in support compared with the 2008 levels, according to Gallup.

Many Democrats are worried by these statistics, which they acknowledge cannot be overcome by simply courting more minority or first-time voters, two groups that strongly supported Mr Obama in 2008.

"It is one thing to register new voters and another thing to get them to the polls in November," said civil servant Sue Damour, 68.

Race v economy

SO, WHAT can Mr Obama do to win back the white vote? Most voters interviewed by The Straits Times in recent weeks say it all boils down to one issue: jobs.

"Look down the road at all the empty buildings and businesses that have closed," said Ms Jeri Piehl, 51, a marketing research specialist who queued for hours to listen to Mr Obama speak at Mau- mee. "I don't care what colour you are - fix the economy!"

Others say the problem is not just the high jobless rate, which has hovered above 8 per cent for 41 months in a row.

They regard the thinly veiled racial animosity towards Mr Obama - from the incessant questions about whether he was truly born in America to the vehement opposition to his agenda among the Republican rank-and-file - as an equally significant reason for the drastic drop in his support among white voters.

"The white middle class won't say it but... deep down, they would rather not vote for (Mr Obama)," said Ms Linda Kendrall, 58, who is white and works as a caregiver for Alzheimer's patients in Sandusky, Ohio. "It's like unspoken racism."

In a further twist to the explosive mix of race and politics this year, it appears that Mr Romney has trouble capitalising on Mr Obama's electoral weakness.

The former Massachusetts governor's support among white voters is currently about 54 per cent, roughly on a par with what Senator John McCain garnered as the losing Republican presidential candidate in 2008. Pollsters feel that level is not enough for Mr Romney to win, especially given his weakness with minority voters.

Indeed, veteran demographics watchers such as Mr Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal magazine have argued that unless Mr Obama loses his grip on minorities and highly educated whites, Mr Romney would need nearly two-thirds of the white vote - a high water mark not seen since 1984, when Mr Ronald Reagan won his historic victory - to clinch the White House.

There are growing doubts, however, about whether Mr Romney can effectively win over white blue-collar and middle-class voters in the heartland. His faltering response to a recent series of attacks by the Obama campaign - which sought to cast him as a secretive tycoon with multiple overseas bank accounts and who helped ship American jobs overseas - has the Republican chattering class worried that their party could suffer another damaging decline in turnout at the polls.

Meanwhile, Mr Obama has seen his efforts to cast himself as a champion of the middle class pay off. According to the latest New York Times-CBS poll, 52 per cent of respondents said Mr Obama would do more to help the middle class, compared with 38 per cent for Mr Romney.

Also, about 53 per cent of voters felt the policies of a Romney administration would favour the rich, while only 11 per cent said they would favour the middle class.

It is unclear though whether these tactical moves will make a difference in the end for Mr Obama, whose approval ratings continue to take a beating as a result of the weak economy.

Still, supporters like Mr Ron Clay, a 54-year-old African-American banker in Cleveland, Ohio, say the embattled president has little choice but to keep trying.

"The Obama campaign has to focus on winning back the white middle class because that's a large part of what put him in office," said Mr Clay. "If it were just the minorities, he wouldn't have been there the first time."