2012 Campaign

How Obama Can Win Even If He Loses White Support


A sign points voters to a polling place for the presidential primary on April 3 in Potomac, Md.

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A sign points voters to a polling place for the presidential primary on April 3 in Potomac, Md.

The question of whether the minority vote will turn the tide in November looms large in the minds of both campaigns, and particularly the Obama camp. Not only was Obama dependent on high minority turnout in 2008, he benefited from lackluster support for McCain in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. There, the electorate is largely white but did not come out in large numbers for McCain, while new minority voters also tipped the balance for Obama. The president needs to work the same magic this time around to win the election.

William Frey, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, has put together three neat maps showing different scenarios of how minorities could make or break Obama’s campaign come November. (The maps are toward the bottom of that linked page.) There are slightly more eligible minority voters this time around, and the scenarios show they very well could deliver Obama the victory he desires. Check it out:

• Scenario A applies 2008 voter turnout patterns to 2012 demographics. It assumes that minorities will turn out for Obama in the same numbers as 2008, while whites will feel lackluster about Romney, as they did about McCain. In that scenario, Obama could once again win states like Ohio and Florida, where he lost the white vote. He would win the election with 358 electoral votes and 29 states.

• In Scenario B, Frey applies 2004 white and minority turnout patterns to 2012 population demographics, and finds that Romney wins. Romney is hoping that whites will turn out to vote for him more, as they did for Bush in 2004 and not like they did for McCain in 2008.

• Scenario C assumes whites will turn out to vote in this election like they did in 2004 and minorities will turn out as they did in 2008. If this happens, Obama still wins, but barely.

The takeaway? Given these scenarios, if Romney is to win, he will likely need to get a higher proportion of whites to vote for him than did not only for McCain, but also for Bush. He will need whites to be really passionate in their support for him, or minorities to be particularly dispassionate in their support for Obama.

Obama has it a bit easier. He “just” needs to make sure the same proportion of minorities votes for him that did four years ago. If the same proportion does, Obama will win five states he could not have won four years ago without the white vote: California, New York, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. According to Frey’s charts, the demographics have changed enough in those states that Obama can carry them even without the support of whites.

Dwoskin is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington. Follow her on Twitter: @lizzadwoskin.

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