In 2008, Barack Obama won by assembling what has been called an “Upstairs Downstairs” coalition. Wealthy whites and lower-income minority voters brought Obama first across the finish line. Four years later, Obama’s 2008 coalition does not appear to be holding. The question is whether it will implode by Election Day.
Earlier this week, Gallup released a summary of its polling results for mid-May onward which pegged the presidential race as a 46-46 dead heat. The numbers beneath the numbers showed that Mitt Romney holds roughly a 4-point lead among middle income voters, a 4-point lead among the upper middle income voters ($90,000-$179,999) and an 11-point lead among those with incomes exceeding $180,000. Middle and upper-income America is beginning to wave goodbye to the president. His appeal to middle-class voters is falling flat.
Among white voters, the numbers are even starker. The president is trailing by 19 points among middle-income whites and is down by 14 points among higher income whites. The world has changed since 2008. Then, Obama tied among voters with incomes above $100,000 and actually won those making over $200,000.
Politically, this is news. Yet, the current shift is not large enough to get Mr. Romney elected. The devotion of Downstairs America to the president, coupled with the president’s strong support among high-end Democratic women, makes the race a dead heat. Polling sometimes reflects life, which sometimes imitates art.
Let me explain. On Friday, just as the Department of Labor announced May’s unemployment figures and the stock market was swooning, the Obama campaign released a fund-raising video by Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine and the inspiration for the title character in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Wintour called for people to donate to Team Obama because she and Sarah Jessica Parker like the president. For those who may have forgotten, Parker played Carrie Bradshaw in the HBO series “Sex and the City.” So, although mom and dad may be losing their jobs, it is the fashionistas that stand between Obama and defeat. How chic is that?
Four years ago, Obama tied John McCain among voters with incomes of $100,000 and up (more than a quarter of all voters) and actually led by 6 points at the $200,000 level. Not any more. Likewise, Obama tied McCain at the $50,000-and-up mark. Not this time. The president is on thin ice with taxpaying America.
Still, the race is far from over. If 2012 is not 2008, it is also not 2010. Two years ago, the Democrats got their collective clock cleaned as their “Upstairs Downstairs” coalition crumbled. Nationally, the GOP outpolled the Democrats by 6 points in congressional races as the Republicans actually won the women’s vote. Among higher income voters, the Republicans held an 18-point edge. Romney is not yet there.
To win, Romney must outperform McCain across the board. McCain lost, despite winning the white non-college graduates by 18 points (who were just under two-fifths of all voters). Romney will need to win the white working class by better than 25 points to be in contention. Romney will also have to hold Obama to under 43 percent among white women. In 2008, Obama garnered 46 percent of this key bloc and prevailed. In 2004, John Kerry only garnered 44 of this vote and lost. Unlike George W. Bush, Romney cannot count on a sizable Hispanic vote, so he will have to make up ground elsewhere.
Like poker, politics is a game of percentages. Right now, the odds are too close for anyone’s comfort.
Lloyd Green was staff secretary to the George H.W. Bush campaign’s Middle East Policy Group in 1988 and served in the Department of Justice between 1990 and 1992.