A labor official e-mailed me the day the story by my colleagues Karen Tumulty and Jon Cohen appeared, saying: “A Democratic president is losing the jobless. . . . FDR must be spinning in his grave.”
The truth is that Democratic presidential candidates have been losing among white voters, particularly those without college degrees, for years. Obama wasn’t the first, but he has clearly struggled as much as, or more than, any of his predecessors in attracting support from that group.
That fact was underscored by Democratic primaries in Kentucky and Arkansas last week. Obama lost roughly 40 percent of the Democratic vote in essentially uncontested events, just as he had in Oklahoma earlier in the year. Although those results drew attention and commentary, they, too, were hardly a surprise.
Four years ago, Obama was wiped out in those states during his nomination battle against Hillary Rodham Clinton. In the general election, he fared worse than the 2004 Democratic nominee, John F. Kerry, did in an arc of heavily white counties running south and west from West Virginia through Arkansas to Oklahoma, even though virtually all other counties in the country gave him a higher percentage of the vote than the Democrats got in 2004. The disaffection with Obama among voters in those counties is no doubt mostly cultural, although race probably plays a role as well.
Another aspect of these shifts is more important: Obama is winning a declining share of what is a steadily declining share of the electorate. In the long run, the changing electorate is a far bigger problem for Republicans, who remain overwhelmingly white in their makeup.
The coalition that Obama began to assemble in his first campaign and continues to focus on in his reelection bid depends less on maintaining his share of the white working-class vote and more on maximizing his support among the rising share of the electorate accounted for by minorities. The shifting balance is well known and closely tracked by Obama loyalists — both the national trends and the changes in the handful of states where the election will be decided.
The macro numbers, set out over time, tell the story graphically. When Bill Clinton was reelected in 1996, white voters made up 83 percent of the electorate. When Obama was elected four years ago, they accounted for just 74 percent. This fall, whites may make up only 72 percent of the vote.
Where he is weakest, of course, is with white voters who were once core members of the Democratic coalition, working-class Americans whose support was consolidated by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and who formed the backbone of both the nation’s economy and the Democratic Party for years. Today, those voters — generally whites without college degrees — tilt Republican.