From The New York Times
MADISON, Wis. — In this traditionally Democratic state, where Republicans triumphed in Tuesday’s failed recall of Gov. Scott Walker
, President Obama holds a thin cushion against economic and political woes: the shape-shifting November electorate.
Here in Dane County, which Mr. Obama carried overwhelmingly in 2008, the population has been growing at more than twice the state average. Minority voters have edged up as a share of the state population, while the number of working-class whites shrinks — making a state Democrats have carried in six consecutive presidential elections slightly more friendly to the party.
That’s no guarantee the Democratic incumbent can survive the effects of tough economic times with the coalition that gave him a double-digit victory four years ago. But in Wisconsin and other competitive states, demographic changes add another variable to a campaign conversation that has largely revolved around high unemployment and slow growth.
“A number of states are urbanizing and losing their historically large rural conservative vote,” said Jan van Lohuizen, a Republican pollster who advised President George W. Bush.
The result, added Ruy Teixeira, a Democratic political demographer, is “a little bit of a tail wind” to offset stiff economic headwinds.
Indeed, Mr. Teixeira frames the battle between Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, as a contest pitting “demographics versus economics.” In an analysis for the liberal Center for American Progress
, he and his co-author, John Halpin, calculated that in 12 battleground states, the proportion of votes cast by working-class whites, a group Mr. Obama lost lopsidedly in 2008, will drop by three percentage points this fall.
By contrast, they project the proportion cast by minority voters, who backed Mr. Obama by overwhelming margins, will rise by two percentage points. The share of votes cast by white college graduates, which Mr. Obama nearly split with his 2008 Republican rival, Senator John McCain, is projected to rise by one percentage point.
From one election to the next, such shifts have only marginal effects. But over the last generation, they have combined with political changes to invert the electoral map.
In 1976, for example, President Gerald R. Ford, a Republican, carried California, Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut. But he lost because his Democratic opponent, Jimmy Carter, swept his native Georgia as well as South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas.
Fueled in those states by strong support from conservative Christians, Mr. Carter, a Southern Baptist, became the only Democrat to win the presidency between 1964 and 1992.
That American electorate has vanished — and with it the once-touted “Republican lock” on the presidency.
Following the ideological realignment of the two parties, white conservative Christians now back Republican presidential candidates by three to one or better. The Deep South and Pacific Coast are solidly in the Republican and Democratic columns, respectively.
But the Republicans’ redoubt of white voters — whites have backed the Republican nominee in every election since 1964 — has steadily shrunk from the combined effects of immigration
and disparate birthrates.
Comprising 89 percent of the electorate in 1976, whites had fallen to 74 percent four years ago. During the same period, Hispanics grew from 1 percent of the electorate to 9 percent.
The opening of a gender gap in presidential politics — which didn’t exist in 1976 — gave Republicans an edge among men and Democrats an edge among women. But women, who made up 49 percent of the electorate in 1976, now cast a majority of votes, helping the Democrats.
Some changes, like the decline in voters from union households to 21 percent of the 2008 electorate from 29 percent in 1976, benefit Republicans. And since 2008, population shifts reflected in Congressional reapportionment have shifted six electoral votes from states Mr. Obama carried to states Mr. McCain did.
For Mr. Obama, the question is whether continuing demographic changes over the last four years can offset the near-term drag of weak economic conditions, among other political challenges. The largest shifts to his benefit have taken place in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Nevada and Virginia, where Mr. Teixeira projects a decline of at least four percentage points in the proportion of the vote cast by working-class whites.
Mr. van Lohuizen, the Republican pollster, also points to North Carolina, where the voting strength of the Democratic-friendly Research Triangle area has swelled at the expense of conservative rural areas. Yet he notes that “the economy slows the long-term trend down a little bit” in two different ways.
In Southwestern states, he said, “I don’t think Hispanic turnout will match the growth” in the number of eligible Hispanic voters because of subpar enthusiasm for Mr. Obama’s economic performance. And in Midwestern states like Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin, the shrinking pool of blue-collar whites could vote even more lopsidedly against the incumbent.
“White working-class voters have gotten seriously squeezed” by high unemployment and stagnant or declining incomes, Mr. van Lohuizen said.
Surveys of voters leaving the polls in the Wisconsin recall, in which Governor Walker fended off a Democratic effort to drive him out of office midway through his term, hinted at continuing shifts in the composition of the electorate.
With both parties mounting full-scale voter turnout efforts, the proportion of the vote cast by residents of rural areas dropped to 26 percent from 35 percent in the election for governor two years ago. White college graduates edged up to 37 percent of the electorate from 35 percent in 2010.
Another shift resulted not from demographics but from a surge in labor turnout in response to Mr. Walker’s battle against public employee unions; even as public employee unions have hemorrhaged members, one-third of the vote was cast by residents of union households, up from 26 percent in 2010.
Those shifts were not enough to lift Tom Barrett, the Democratic mayor of Milwaukee, to victory in the recall election. But among those voting, exit polls showed, Mr. Obama was favored by 51 percent to 44 percent over Mr. Romney.