As Obama and Mitt Romney gird their loins and enter into full campaign battle mode, five constituencies become crucial to the outcome of the election: blacks, Hispanics, women, Independents, and young people.
The African-American vote has been a mainstay of the Democratic Party. In 2008 they turned out in record numbers to elect the first black president in history. Now Obama is seeing a precipitous drop in the number of blacks with a “strongly favorable” view of the President, from 83 percent last year to 58 percent this year.
Still, 86 percent overall have a favorable view of Obama. He needs to reboot the enthusiasm of four years ago and work very hard with black leaders to generate another year of record turnout.
Mitt Romney has a hard row to hoe with these voters. In spite of affinities on issues such as gay marriage, the GOP has had a difficult time making inroads with this constituency.
Hispanics are the fastest growing minority in the United States, and have become the crucial difference between winning or losing in the 11 states where they play a significant electoral role.
In 2008 John McCain only received 31 percent of Hispanic voters to Obama’s 67 percent. Hispanic support for the Democratic nominee increased by 14 points overall compared with 2004, the biggest shift toward the Democrats by any voter group. In 2004, 53 percent voted For John Kerry, while 44 percent supported President George W. Bush — an all-time high for a GOP candidate for president and crucial to Bush's re-election.
Clearly Obama needs to try and repeat the magic of 2008. Mitt Romney has his job cut out for him, too. Although Hispanic voters are most passionate about jobs and the economy, the Republican hard line on immigration and deportation creates a very, very steep mountain for Romney and the Republicans to overcome.
The gender gap
We know that the Republicans have had a gender gap in every modern presidential election. In 2012 the issues of birth control, women’s health, the domestic violence bill in Congress, and the frequent harsh language of Rush Limbaugh and other Republican leaders have diminished the support of women for GOP candidates, including Romney. It does not help that the Mormon Church to which Romney belongs is not famous for its egalitarian views on the role of women.
Obama led Romney 52 to 41 percent among registered female voters surveyed, according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll (although the margin was 21 points in Obama's favor the previous month, indicating gains for Romney). That’s still a hurdle for Romney, who will need to convince women that his economic policies will be crucial to prosperity and strong families.
Young voters are always a challenge for presidential candidates because they tend not to vote in sufficient numbers. The astonishing results Obama had in 2008 with the youth vote were an aberration. It resulted from excitement and optimism about the candidate. Young voters are more progressive and more tolerant of racial diversity, gay rights, and abortion.
Obama skillfully used social media to excite, recruit, and mobilize the youth vote. Young voters went 2-1 for Obama and helped the Democrats sweep House seats as well. In 2012 young voters appear to have become discouraged by the economy and the fact that Obama did not implement some of his promises, especially to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether Romney can tap into the youth vote, say on the issue of the economy, is a stretch. Especially since Romney is viewed as totally not “cool” while Obama is once again emerging as “super cool.”
Independent or no-party voters are often crucial for presidential elections. Of course, Independents are also young, female and so on, so they are not a neat and unique group. In 2008 Obama won support from 52 percent of Independents to McCain’s 44 percent. This helped put Obama over the top in several states. Four years later, recent polling suggests Mitt Romney has been chipping away at Obama's hold on this group, with a surging favorability rating over the last month.
Given the dynamic of these constituencies, Obama has clear advantages with several groups — in particular women, blacks and young voters — but he needs to re-energize them for this election. Romney has a very tough job cut out for him with Hispanics and women, but seems to have a good shot at the coveted Independents. Romney also will gain faith-based, conservative, traditional and older voters. He has a clear advantage with men.
If Romney can stimulate intensity in these groups, he can win the election — especially if Obama’s constituencies are unmotivated.