By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2010; A02
To become the nation's first black president, Barack Obama not only won heavy percentages of the black and Hispanic vote but also managed to trim the Democratic Party's traditional deficit among white voters.
Four years after Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) lost the white vote by 17 percentage points, Obama lost it by 12, according to exit polls. While the 2008 gains were generally attributed to Obama's strength with young voters -- he won by 10 points among whites 18 to 29 years old -- he managed to improve on Kerry's showing with white voters across every age demographic.
Fast-forward to today. With the November midterm elections less than four months away, Obama's standing among white voters has sunk -- leading some party strategists to fret that the president's erosion -- and the party's -- could adversely affect Democrats' chances of holding on to their House and Senate majorities.
"Since in the past House elections white voters tended to represent the independent vote, [the midterms] will surely be devastating for Democrats running in an election that will be a referendum on the Obama agenda," predicted one senior Democratic operative who closely tracks House races.
In Washington Post-ABC polling, Obama's approval rating among white voters has dropped from better than 60 percent to just above 40 percent. In a June poll, 46 percent of white voters under age 40 approved of how Obama was doing, compared with just 39 percent of whites 65 and older.
The latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll reveals that Obama's standing among white voters is remarkably similar to that of President George W. Bush at this same time two years ago.
In the June 2008 NBC-WSJ survey, 37 percent of white men and 26 percent of white women approved of the job Bush was doing. In the June 2010 poll, an identical 37 percent of white men approved of Obama's handling of his job, as did 35 percent of white women.
Those numbers are all the more striking when viewed against overall perceptions of the two presidents. In June 2008, just 28 percent approved of the job Bush was doing while a whopping 66 percent disapproved. Obama, by contrast, is running far stronger with the nation as a whole, with ratings of 45 percent approval and 48 percent disapproval in last month's NBC-WSJ survey.
Context, as always in politics, matters here. First, as noted above, Republican presidents tend to far outperform Democratic ones among white voters. Second, Obama's sweeping win -- his 365 electoral votes represented victories even in Republican-friendly states such as Indiana -- meant that his numbers were bound to fall among whites (and nearly everyone else) once he began the task of governing. Third, Bush's numbers were bolstered by whites in the South (42 percent approval in the 2008 NBC-WSJ survey) while Obama's is hurt by them (29 percent approval).
Still, Obama's numbers among white voters have some Democratic strategists with an eye on the fall elections decidedly nervous.
One senior strategist, speaking candidly about his concerns on the condition of anonymity, noted that white voters made up 79 percent of the 2006 midterm electorate, while they made up 74 percent of the 2008 vote. If the white percentage returns to its 2006 level, that means there will be 3 million more white voters than if it stayed at its 2008 levels. That scenario, said the source, "would generate massive losses" for House and Senate Democrats in November because of Obama's standing with that demographic.
To avoid such losses, the Democratic National Committee has committed to spending tens of millions of dollars to re-create (or come somewhere near re-creating) the 2008 election model, in which Democrats relied heavily on higher-than-normal turnout from young people and strong support from African American and Hispanic voters.
The DNC's plan is ambitious, to say the least: In the space of a few months, the strategists hope to change the composition of a midterm electorate that, if history is any guide, tends to be older and whiter than in a presidential-election year. Put that way, it sounds crazy -- and it has drawn considerable skepticism from independent observers.
But given the reality that white voters -- again -- almost certainly hold the key to Obama's and the Democrats' chances in the fall, they would be even crazier not to try.