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October 02, 2012 10:40 AM Imperfect Vessel

By Ed Kilgore

Political campaigns have a lot of tools for determining targets of opportunity in the electorate. The real difficulty comes in assessing the weight to assign to each. In the end, a vote is a vote, and for all the talk of Romney needing X percent of this demographic or Obama needing X percent of that one, all either needs are the votes necessary to win 270 EVs, and with the relatively rare exception of certain voters who are genuinely undecided, there’s no real bonus for winning “swing voters.”

I say all this by way of background to the growing belief of political observers that the key demographic in the presidential contest is non-college-educated white women in the battleground states, among whom Mitt Romney is tangibly struggling. National Journal’s Ron Brownstein explains:

The biggest divergence between…battleground-state polls and national surveys is Obama’s performance among white women without a college education. These women have tilted Republican in every presidential election since 1980 except 1996, and in 2008, Obama won only 41 percent of them. The three recent national surveys showed Obama attracting between 35 percent (Heartland Monitor) and 44 percent (Pew) of their votes.
But in the battleground states, especially in the Midwest, Obama’s performance is stronger. Among these women, the state-level polls show Obama drawing 46 percent in Michigan, 48 percent in Florida, 49 percent in Nevada, 50 percent in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, 51 percent in Pennsylvania, and 52 percent in Ohio and Iowa. Obama still lags badly among them only in North Carolina and Virginia, where many blue-collar whites are also evangelical Christians, and to a lesser extent Colorado.

Brownstein quotes both Republican and Democratic insiders as attributing this anomaly to heavy anti-Romney messaging (mainly in ads, but you’d have to figure the Democratic Convention was a factor as well) exploiting Mitt’s background and personality to suggest that white working-class families are the last people on earth the GOP nominee knows or cares about. Some observers also feel Romney is paying a heavy price in this segment of the electorate for GOP attacks on contraception and women’s health services, a real complication since Republicans would normally double-down on their “war on religion” claims to maximize the white working-class vote. Here’s the money quote:

Both campaigns agree the Democratic ads have damaged Romney much more with blue-collar women than blue-collar men. But both sides also agree that these women are the least stable component of Obama’s emerging coalition. “I still say the noncollege white women are the moving piece of the electorate,” [Democratic pollster Geoff] Garin said. “But Romney is an imperfect vessel for them to say the least.”

That he is. There’s no obvious solution to the apparently widening gender gap within the white working-class vote. Republicans managed to hold down losses among white women in the first half of the last decade by fanning fears of terrorism; that could be one reason (other than reflexive opportunism) for Mitt’s heavy-handed attacks on Obama’s handling of the Libya situation. But this approach obviously runs the risk of distracting attention from Romney’s central economic theme. The same is true of a harsh “otherization” effort to trump perceptions of Romney as a corporate tycoon with renewed doubts about Obama’s background and character. So what we will probably see is a combo platter of frantic efforts to “humanize” Mitt along with the kind of big, bold lies about the impact on the middle class of the two candidates’ agendas that we are seeing in the latest Romney ad. Add in highly targeted messaging on energy policy aimed at coal-dependent regions in Ohio and Virginia, and you’ve got a blunt appeal for Mitt based on comparative economic fears, accompanied by efforts to secure a draw with Obama on the who-can-you-trust factor.

In a very stable election with a low undecided vote and relatively inflexible demographics, Romney may have little choice but to go after non-college educated white women as aggressively as he can, and will likely do so in a way that is designed to boost his already-strong numbers among non-college educated white men. The one thing we know for sure (just ask his primary opponents) is that he will not be inhibited by any moral or civic compunctions from pursuing any potentially effective tactic, no matter how horrifyingly divisive or mendacious his campaign has to become. Imperfect vessel that he is for any kind of positive appeal, the odds remain very high that he will leave no nastiness undeployed between now and November 6.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Ron Byers on October 02, 2012 10:57 AM:

    The non-battleground states aren't sampled very often. For example, the most recent Missouri polls are from early September and late August. Internal demographics require larger samples than most of the snapshot polls. There is no way to know what the percentages really are unless there is a serious poll. Serious polls are mostly being conducted in the battleground states.

  • Paul Dirks on October 02, 2012 10:58 AM:

    Two words.
    Auto Bailout.

  • BillFromPA on October 02, 2012 11:12 AM:

    So after a year of defunding Planned Parenthood, the Pink Ribbon fiasco, 'conscience denials' of certain women's heath benefits, topped of by 'Legitimate Rape', it's the Imperfect Vessel Romney who'so to blame? Keep thinking that, wingnuts, 'Baggers and other assorted knuckle-draggers. The very things you think are great, the rest of the country sees otherwise.

  • Peter C on October 02, 2012 11:15 AM:

    "Both campaigns agree the Democratic ads have damaged Romney much more with blue-collar women than blue-collar men."

    The ads didn't damage Romney; Romney damaged Romney. He personifies the 1% and has shown his contempt for the rest of us. The Democratic ads did not create that persona for him. He's just uninterested in pretending to 'clear brush' on his 'ranch'; his landscaping service does that for him.

    Republicans only fight for the 1%, but they try to con the public into thinking otherwise; their core ideas, however, don't help most Americans a whit. Romney isn't playing the game; he's not keeping up the pretense. He doesn't really care about the 99% (much less the 47%) and he's really bad at pretending that he does.

    Espousing Republican ideas damaged Romney. The Democratic ads just point out the man behind the curtain.

  • alamr18 on October 02, 2012 11:16 AM:

    Ed I have a general question that maybe you could address. What is it about working class black men and women or latino men and women that draw them into the democratic party versus white working class men and women? or vice versa? What are republicans saying or doing that draws them in but not other groups? Lastly I remember a little while ago watching Morning Joe and Joe Scarborough said something that really kinda got under my skin. He said that in 2004 Bush and Rove went into inner cities and told inner city groups that their policies would help the inner city. Scarborough said they did it not because they thought they would win the votes of blacks but the votes of suburban white women. That to me sounded like Repubs are saying hey we think our policies help everyone but you dont really care so we are here to get white women to vote for us. And secondly what bothere me was these same white women vote for republicans and they send their children into 2 wars, increased suicides and sexual assault and levels of PTSD that hasnt been seen in decades. How does all of that mesh?

  • c u n d gulag on October 02, 2012 11:24 AM:

    Yes, white blue collar women, vote for Mitt Romney!

    After all, he looks like the kind of guy who has you and your families best interests at heart, and the fact that he looks like the guy who came in, bought up your husbands company, and outsourced his good paying job, while raking in massive profits, is purely coincidental.

    And maybe if he's elected, he'll ignore all of the Dominionist Evangelical Christians around him, and return to being open to you having a "choice," or at least allowing for cheap or free contraceptives, because having one more child will economically ruin your family.

    And remember who the white guy is in this race!
    Mitt wants to be President, for Pete's sake.

  • Steve P on October 02, 2012 11:53 AM:

    If you were in a battleground state you'd have seen the "Barack doesn't call me anymore" ad, where a woman worries that the hunk she fell for four years ago hasn't called lately. She's older and her hair is "lighter" and the kids are teenagers and want to go to college and she can't afford to send them both to Enormous State U . . .

    I think the Rmoney media team was brought in enmasse from Lifetime.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on October 02, 2012 1:00 PM:

    What is it about working class black men and women or latino men and women that draw them into the democratic party versus white working class men and women?

    Know what's really interesting about this observation--at least from my limited perspective--all the black Republicans I know tend towards being pretty well off economically (upper-middle class or just filthy rich, or at least think they are). Which is understandable because they would theoretically be voting for their own economic interests. (I've also met one or two black Republicans who have a bit of Galt complex--especially with regard to how they feel about other blacks they've know personally, i.e. family members, who they deem lazy, welfare-check cashin' moochers...)

    But working class blacks voting Republican? That's a hard sell outside of certain conservative social issues (namely gay marriage--for the time being, at least). But going around screaming "Welfare Queen/Food Stamp President" certainly doesn't boosts the GOP's appeal. Especially when many black people, if they weren't on it themselves at some point during their lives, may have friends, family members and neighbors who were/are welfare recipients and know that welfare isn't the Powerball Lottery. (not that welfare is a major issue for all black voters, just an example)

    And then maybe there's that cultural history that working class whites have the assurance (real or not) that voting against their interests by voting for the GOP will presumably guarantee that some undeserving black/brown person doesn't get their job or hard-earned money...

    This isn't to say that blacks instinctively flock to the Dems, just that unless blacks have an economic stake, the GOP really doesn't offer any hope. And the GOP tends to have an undercurrent of "I got mine, you go die and ditch" that doesn't digest well among many black social groups who do put a lot effort into helping their friends and family out of tight situations.

  • OKDem on October 02, 2012 1:00 PM:

    I would like to see the comparison of "Evangelical" or Fundamentalist and white non-college educated women supporting Republicans. My guess is the tilt is localized in the South, Plains and Appalachia.