Each election cycle there occurs a tired ritual, in which pundits and reporters rediscover that yes, indeed, there are still a lot of white working class voters in America, and they represent a serious vulnerability for the Democrats. But just this once, let’s skip the period where everyone initially ignores this group and cut straight to the chase: There will be a lot of white working class voters showing up at the polls next November, and the degree to which they support (or abandon) President Obama could very well make or break his reelection.
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.
To be sure, the good news for Obama is that the level of support he needs from this group of voters is not terribly high. While a 30 point deficit might sink him, he could survive pretty easily on a 23 point deficit, John Kerry’s margin in 2004. That Obama would likely win with this very large deficit, while Kerry lost, indicates just how much the demographics of the country have changed in the 8 years since Kerry’s defeat. But while the bar for Obama may be lower, he still needs to clear it, and at the moment, that’s looking like a real challenge.