The Hidden History of the American Electorate

The Hidden History of the American Electorate

Analysis of exit-poll results from the last eight presidential elections shows how demographic groups are—and aren’t—shifting in their voting preferences.

By Ronald Brownstein | Updated: August 24, 2012 | 12:58 p.m.

After Barack Obama won his historic victory in 2008, the opportunity to reshape the landscape of American politics glimmered before him and his advisers.

CHARTS: Presidential Voting By Demographic Group, 1980-2008

In his ardent, pathbreaking campaign, Obama captured 52.8 percent of the popular vote against John McCain, becoming the only Democratic nominee since World War II other than Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to exceed 50.1 percent. Obama ran best among young people, minorities, and college-educated white women, all groups that were growing in numbers. That “coalition of the ascendant” offered the new president the prospect of a steadily expanding base—even as his dramatic victory provided him the opportunity to court voters dislodged from the Republican coalition by disillusionment with outgoing President Bush. For all of these reasons, the 2008 results allowed Obama’s team to dream, much like the French generals at Verdun, of breaking through a grinding stalemate—in the current case, the rigid and narrow divide that had characterized American politics for the 12 years since Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996.

Four years later, those dreams of realignment have, for now at least, turned to dust. After four grueling years of economic turbulence and partisan conflict, no one in either party expects Obama to consolidate a commanding new majority coalition this fall. Instead, his team is struggling against fierce economic headwinds to marshal a bare majority that relies less on converting ambivalent swing voters than on maximizing turnout and the president’s advantage among his core supporters.

Lifted by economic discontent, Republican contender Mitt Romney is running better in polls this summer than McCain did among the groups that were always the most skeptical of Obama, particularly older and blue-collar white voters, as well as well-educated white men. But Romney, too, has directed his agenda almost entirely at his party’s core supporters. And that has made it easier for Obama to hold his most reliable groups despite the economic anxiety. The net result is an election that today appears on track to more resemble the 50-50 division of Bush’s slim victories in 2000 and 2004 than Obama’s 365-vote Electoral College blitz in 2008. Absent a dramatic late development, small shifts in the preferences or turnout of virtually any group in the electorate could decide this election.

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