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.