Illustration by Zohar Lazar
David Plouffe sits in his White House office, just a few steps from the Oval, staring at an oversize map of these United States. It’s late afternoon on May 9, two hours after Barack Obama’s declaration that his evolution on gay marriage has reached its terminus. The president is down the hall and on the phone, discussing his decision’s theological implications with several prominent African-American pastors—while Plouffe is being queried about its political dimensions by a querulous Caucasian reporter. The map at which Plouffe is gazing isn’t the electoral kind with the states shaded blue and red; as a federal employee, he notes wryly, “I’m not permitted to have one on the wall.” But given the way his head is hardwired, I’m pretty sure Plouffe is seeing those colors regardless.
The question of whether Obama’s new stance narrows or widens his path to victory in November is one that Plouffe and his comrades have been agonizing over since early this year, when their boss returned from vacation and told them he wanted to take the plunge. The possible political benefits are clear: jazzing up young voters, ginning up gay dollars. As are the costs: turning off socially conservative Democrats and independents, particularly in four pivotal swing states—Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina, and Virginia. But as to the net effect of the announcement on Obama’s ability to accumulate 270 electoral votes, his adjutants are unable to render a firm verdict. “I think there is more upside potential than downside potential,” Plouffe says. “But is there a scenario where it’s harder? Yes.”
Such scenarios don’t rest easily with Plouffe, the nothing-to-chance operative who rose to prominence as Obama’s 2008 campaign manager. Since returning to the fold after a two-year hiatus in January 2011, Plouffe has seen his boss’s approval ratings rise (to a high of 53 percent, according to Gallup, after Osama bin Laden’s killing) and fall (to a low of 38 percent after last summer’s debt-ceiling debacle and the downgrade of America’s credit rating) and rise again. But all along, his message to his colleagues has been the same: 2012 was destined to be a corset-tight election.
The contours of that contest are now plain to see—indeed, they have been for some time. Back in November, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, two fellows at the Center for American Progress, identified the prevailing dynamics: The presidential race would boil down to “demographics versus economics.” That the latter favor Mitt Romney is incontestable. From high unemployment and stagnant incomes to tepid GDP growth and a still-pervasive sense of anxiety bordering on pessimism in the body politic, every salient variable undermines the prospects of the incumbent. The subject line of an e-mail from the Romney press shop that hit my in-box last week summed up the challenger’s framing of the election concisely and precisely: “What’s This Campaign Going to Be About? The Obama Economy.”
The president begs to differ. In 2008, the junior senator from Illinois won in a landslide by fashioning a potent “coalition of the ascendant,” as Teixeira and Halpin call it, in which the components were minorities (especially Latinos), socially liberal college-educated whites (especially women), and young voters. This time around, Obama will seek to do the same thing again, only more so. The growth of those segments of the electorate and the president’s strength with them have his team brimming with confidence that demographics will trump economics in November—and in the process create a template for Democratic dominance at the presidential level for years to come.
But if the Obama 2012 strategy in this regard is all about the amplification of 2008, in terms of message it will represent a striking deviation. Though the Obamans certainly hit John McCain hard four years ago—running more negative ads than any campaign in history—what they intend to do to Romney is more savage. They will pummel him for being a vulture-vampire capitalist at Bain Capital. They will pound him for being a miserable failure as the governor of Massachusetts. They will mash him for being a water-carrier for Paul Ryan’s Social Darwinist fiscal program. They will maul him for being a combination of Jerry Falwell, Joe Arpaio, and John Galt on a range of issues that strike deep chords with the Obama coalition. “We’re gonna say, ‘Let’s be clear what he would do as president,’ ” Plouffe explains. “Potentially abortion will be criminalized. Women will be denied contraceptive services. He’s far right on immigration. He supports efforts to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage.”
The Obama effort at disqualifying Romney will go beyond painting him as excessively conservative, however. It will aim to cast him as an avatar of revanchism. “He’s the fifties, he is retro, he is backward, and we are forward—that’s the basic construct,” says a top Obama strategist. “If you’re a woman, you’re Hispanic, you’re young, or you’ve gotten left out, you look at Romney and say, ‘This fucking guy is gonna take us back to the way it always was, and guess what? I’ve never been part of that.’ ”