President Obama’s base of support remains solid heading into 2012

Chris Cillizza
Reporter November 20, 2011

Everyone knows that President Obama has a problem with his political base heading into 2012. Except that he doesn’t.

One of the most persistent story lines for the president has been that the liberal left has grown increasingly dissatisfied with his actions (or inaction) on some of its priorities — including single-payer health insurance, the extension of the George W. Bush tax cuts and whether to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House. View Archive

But an examination of the polling data among key subgroups that constitute Obama’s base makes clear that he has as much support from them as any modern president seeking a second term.

“There is one immutable fact about President Obama’s reelection chances: Nobody has a more solid 44 percent base than he does,” Democratic pollster Peter Hart wrote in a not-entirely-uncritical memo assessing the state of political affairs a year out from the election.

As evidence, Hart noted that in the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, Obama takes 44 percent in a three-way race with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney as the Republican nominee and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) running as an independent; has a 44 percent job approval rating; and has a 45 percent positive personal rating. In the same survey, 45 percent said they “probably” will vote for Obama in 2012.

At the heart of the president’s enduring strength among his base are African Americans who have never wavered in any meaningful way after 95 percent of black voters opted for the Illinois senator in 2008.

In Gallup’s latest weekly tracking polling, Obama’s job approval rating stands at 43 percent among the general public but is nearly double that — 84 percent —among African Americans. In the November NBC-WSJ poll, Obama’s approval rating among black voters stood at a stratospheric 91 percent.

Given that African Americans made up 13 percent of the overall electorate in 2008 — and, hence, a much larger chunk of the Democratic base vote — Obama’s continued support among that key demographic makes any sort of widespread base erosion in 2012 unlikely.

That’s a reality that even Republicans acknowledge.

“Anyone who thinks African Americans are not going to turn out and vote in numbers similar to 2008 are fooling themselves,” said Glen Bolger, a leading GOP pollster. “There is no way they are going to say, ‘Well, we didn’t get everything we wanted from making history, so let’s sit on our hands.’ ”

Although African Americans remain the base group most broadly supportive of Obama, liberals and Democrats are very much in his camp as well. In Gallup’s most recent data, Obama’s job approval rating stood at 78 percent among Democrats and 70 percent among liberals.

Those numbers are similar to where President Bill Clinton stood in November 1995, when 78 percent of Democrats in Gallup polling approved of the job he was doing. (Bush had the support of 87 percent of Republicans in the fall of 2003, but those numbers were the result of the boosts he received from the start of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

That’s not to say that there aren’t elements of softness in Obama’s base. His latest job approval rating in Gallup’s tracking survey is at 50 percent among 18-to-29-year-olds and Hispanics, both significant drop-offs from the 66 percent and 67 percent, respectively, he won among those two groups in the 2008 election.

Of course, comparing job approval ratings to vote share is an inexact science — approval ratings judge Obama against himself, while an election will force members of his base to choose between the incumbent and a Republican with whom they agree on very little.

“Democratic base voters will start focusing on the election just as the Republican not-ready-for-prime-time players start coming to a theater near them,” longtime Democratic strategist Steve Rosenthal predicted.

Obama’s base strength does not mean that he will face an easier-than-expected road to reelection. The country’s economy continues to sputter, large majorities of the public think the nation is headed in the wrong direction, and Obama’s numbers among electorally critical independents are nowhere near where his team would like them to be. And, if Obama’s base is largely united, so, too, is the opposition; in an October Washington Post-ABC News poll, 46 percent of respondents said they would not even consider voting for him.

But it does mean that Obama starts with a rock-solid 43 to 44 percent of the vote and that the focus of the next 11 months is almost certain to be on improving his numbers among independents in states such as Colorado, Florida and Wisconsin.

“Is the president’s base upset? You bet, but they aren’t upset at Obama,” said Cornell Belcher, who conducts polling for the Democratic National Committee. “They are in fact sympathetic to what Obama is trying to do and what he is going through.”

And Hart wrote in his year-out memo: “His base will be invaluable, and this has been underestimated. It should not be.”

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