Bill Clinton didn’t know he was in big trouble until the very eve of the November 1994 election. Barack Obama knows now, barely a year into his presidency. While the party loyalists can blame Martha Coakley’s defeat on her ignorance of Red Sox baseball, it was clearly a message to the president and his party. Yes, a less inept candidate might have beaten Scott Brown, but if Obama and his program had been more popular in Massachusetts, even Coakley could have won--and by ten points or more.
There were no network exits polls, only a limited sample by Rasmussen, but some of the polls taken beforehand bear out Obama’s role in Coakley’s defeat. In the final January 17 poll by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning North Carolina outfit that picked up Brown’s surge early in the month, 20 percent of the respondents who voted for Obama in 2008 said they’d vote for Brown. Among those voters, only 22 percent approved of Obama’s presidency, and only 13 percent backed his health care plan.
In fact, the percent of 2008 Obama voters who were backing Brown almost perfectly matched the percentage who were dissatisfied with Obama’s health care plan, which Brown himself singled out for criticism in his campaign. According to the Rasmussen exit sample, 52 percent of Brown voters rated health care as their top issue--a clear indication that they were viewing the election in national and not merely state terms.
The most important question raised by Coakley’s loss is not what she could have done better--the answer to that can fill pages of unhappy anecdotes about campaign mishaps--but why Obama’s popularity is so low that a Democrat could lose Massachusetts. A conservative Republican Senate candidate winning Massachusetts, which Obama carried by 62 to 36 percent in 2008, is comparable to a liberal Democrat carrying Utah.
If you believe some of the blogs, the Democrats lost Massachusetts, and Obama’s approval is plummeting nationwide, because he alienated his leftwing base. Perhaps that does account for an absence of turnout among young voters in the Virginia gubernatorial or Massachusetts Senate races, but the polls have not shown growing dissatisfaction among young, minority, or liberal voters--the three voting blocs that accounted for Obama’s strongest support in 2008. Where he has lost ground--and where the Democrats have lost ground--is primarily among white working and middle class voters and senior citizens.
The Suffolk University poll in Massachusetts, which like the PPP poll, was pretty much on target in the final result, singled out two white working class towns, Gardner and Fitchburg, as bellwethers. Obama won Gardner, where Democrats hold a three-to-one registrations edge, by 59 to 31 percent in 2008. Brown won it by 56 to 42 percent. Obama won Fitchburg, with a similar Democratic edge, by 60 to 38 percent in 2008. Brown won it by 59 to 40 percent. That suggests a fairly dramatic shift among white working class voters.
There is no similar city or county gauge for how seniors voted in the final result, but there were prior polls. The Suffolk poll taken January 14 has some clues. The age group that most strongly favored Brown was 65 to 74 year olds by 58 to 38 percent. The same group opposed national health insurance by 48 to 28 percent and thought the federal government couldn’t afford such a plan by 66 to 33 percent. This age group also included the highest percentage of voters--41 percent--who said they “strongly opposed” Obama’s plan. And they were the one group (albeit narrowly) who disapproved of the job Obama was doing as president--by 45 to 44 percent.
If you look at national polls, Obama has suffered the greatest loss of approval among exactly the same groups. In the Pew polls, Obama suffered a drastic drop in support in the $30,000-$75,000 income group from 63 to 17 percent approval in February 2009 to 53 to 35 percent disapproval in the January 14 poll. Among respondents over 65 years old, he went from 60 to 17 percent approval to 54 to 31 percent disapproval. In its January 2010 poll, Pew has a breakdown by race that is even more disturbing. Whites with some or no college--a rough designation for working class whites--disapprove of Obama’s presidency by 54 to 36 percent.
Why do these groups matter? Since the 1960s, when the Democratic Party split over race, and later over cultural issues as well, the white working class has been a key vote in elections. Their departure from the Democrats in the South helped account for the transformation of the Deep South from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican. And in the Northern states, and particularly in Midwestern states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, they have been the swing vote in state and presidential elections. It’s a fair measure to say that if a Democrat can get about 45 percent of the white working class vote, he or she can carry Ohio--Obama got about 44 percent in 2008. But if he gets only 40 percent or less in these states, he will lose those states and lose national elections. The white working class vote may not be as important in five or ten years, as the demography of America shifts, but it remains so now—an enduring legacy of the politics of the late sixties.