Obama’s base and politics of disappointment
There may be no better illustration of President Barack Obama’s appeal than his ability to hold onto voters — minorities, single moms and young people — who have fared the worst under his presidency. The big question as we approach Election Day may be whether these constituencies, having been mauled by the economy, will show up in sufficient numbers to ensure Obama’s re-election.
Welcome to the politics of disappointment. Much has been said about the problems facing the middle class, which has been losing out since the 1970s. But the biggest recent losers have been groups like African-Americans and Latinos. In the current economic downturn, middle class African-Americans have lost virtually all the gains they made over the past 30 years, according to the National Urban League. Median annual household income for blacks declined by more than 11 percent from June 2009 to June 2012, according to the Census bureau. That’s twice the loss suffered by whites.
African-Americans and Latinos have also borne much of the pain from the housing downturn. Latinos suffered the biggest loss of net worth in the recession — largely based on decline in housing values — of any ethnic group, according to the Census. Weakness in the housing market, now only beginning to recover, also hurt many Latino workers, who represent a large part of the nation’s construction industry labor force.
Latinos have been doing so poorly under Obama’s tepid recovery that, by some estimates, more are headed back to Mexico than coming here. Many voters who might make a difference in November could be in Michoacán or Oaxaca rather than Michigan or Ohio.
As for the young, even those with college education, they still suffer high unemployment rates and constricted job opportunities. More than 15 percent of all age 18- to 24-year-old workers are unemployed.
A college degree does not assure success. More than 43 percent of recent graduates now working are in jobs that don’t require a college education, according to a recent report by the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. Not surprisingly, stress levels among college freshman are the highest since data started to be collected, a quarter-century ago.
Yet the one group that has thrived under Obama — the affluent, including the dreaded “1 percent” — is also the class that has mobilized most aggressively against him. In 2008 Obama split the vote among those making more than $100,000 a year. The wealthy have now shifted heavily to GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, according to Gallup, with those making over $180,000 favoring him by slightly more than 9 percent.
The biggest change has taken place among those at the highest elevations. These include many executives of the largest banks, who accepted federal bailouts and then helped themselves to huge bonuses in the ensuing years, after the Bernanke monetary spigot was opened. Both JP Morgan and Wells Fargo, for example, announced record profits this month.
The top 1 percent of earners gained more than 90 percent of the benefits from the TARP-powered 2009-2010 recovery, while the top 0.01 per cent alone garnered more than one-third. They all but avoided serious investigations for their misdeeds — in fact, no major Wall Streeter has yet to go to jail for sending the world economy into disarray.
Yet institutions like Goldman Sachs, which tilted heavily toward Obama in 2008, now favor Romney. Wall Street has sent Romney $37 million this year, and only $4.8 million to the president. For his big business money, the president now relies on Silicon Valley and Hollywood.
In contrast, Obama continues to dominate his less affluent 2008 core constituencies. But it’s increasingly likely that the poor economy — particularly for these groups — could depress turnout. In 2008 the record turnout of minorities, single women and young voters propelled Obama to a near-landslide win. A weaker showing this year could make the election close, as we are seeing in polls today, and could even allow Romney — the candidate of predominantly white, married, middle-class voters — to overcome his party’s chronic demographic shortcomings.
Let’s start with Obama’s most loyal base, African-Americans. Though certain to turn out overwhelmingly for the president, Gallup reports that the number “likely” to vote has decreased somewhat from 2008. A recent Urban League report suggested that a diminished African-American turnout could cost the president in such key swing states as Pennsylvania, Florida and even Ohio. A recent poll by Politico and George Washington University found that while 82 percent of whites are “extremely likely” to vote only 71 percent of African-Americans, and 70 percent of Latinos, expressed the same intention.
Ominously, registration levels in many key African-American areas have dropped precipitously. In Chicago, for example, they are down by more than 12 percent, compared to increases in some of the heavily white outer suburbs. Obama may still win his home state in November, but prospects for Democratic pick-ups in the House of Representatives have dimmed.
More critical still has been a massive reduction in voter registrations in heavily black and Democratic Cuyahoga County, Ohio (Cleveland). Recent attempts in many states to monitor voting could further reduce minority turnout.
Latino voters are particularly affected by this move to monitor voting, since many may lack the right paperwork. But even so, there is a real enthusiasm gap, demonstrated by the unexpected decline in registration among Latinos. Twelve million Hispanics were registered in 2008 and the number was expected to rise to 14 million by this election. Instead the total, as of the last election in 2010, was only 11 million, something that some experts link to Mexicans moving or returning home.
Mobilizing Latinos — decisive in the swing states of Florida, Colorado and Nevada — may pose the greatest challenge for the Obama campaign. In 2008, Latinos voted 2 to 1 for Obama, and seem likely to repeat that feat this year.
Even worse for the president, Latinos, like Obama’s other core constituencies, don’t appear to be as enthusiastic this year. With their rate of unemployment well above the national average, support for the president has waned a bit from 2008 levels. If turnout also declines, it could prove decisive.
Lack of enthusiasm also appears among younger voters. Though Romney is winning white voters under age 30, particularly men, he is getting nowhere with female and minority millennials.
But the real issue may prove to be turnout. Growing alienation seems to have depressed enthusiasm among the young, with barely half of all under 30 pro-Obama voters now planning to turn out to the polls. The youth vote, which cemented Obama’s 2008 victory with a record turnout, could prove far less important this year.
As Obama loses ground among middle-class whites and families, he will need his core constituencies to show up. This is where the president’s “ground game” will likely be critical. If the key groups come out to the polls, forgetting or at least forgiving what has happened over the past four years, they can renew their faith in the gospel of hope and change for the next four.
PHOTO: President Barack Obama at a Univision town hall at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, September 20, 2012. The sign reads “The Latino Vote.” REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque