No Laughing Matter: Obama and the Voters He Needs in November

04/25/2008 03:48 pm 15:48:48 | Updated May 25, 2011

It would be a mistake to assume that Hillary Clinton won Pennsylvania by 214,000 votes just because she had the support of Governor Ed Rendell. Barack Obama's inability to attract the supporters that make up her traditional Democratic coalition goes far deeper than that.

After all, in progressive Massachusetts it was Obama who had the vocal backing of the Governor, Deval Patrick, and both U.S. senators, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry. The effect of this powerful triumvirate was meaningless. Clinton won the primary by 200,000 votes, a whopping 56% to 40%.

No, there's another reason Obama outspent her 3 to 1 in the Keystone State, pounding her daily on TV for six weeks, and still lost by 10 points. There's a reason the same thing happened in Ohio, too, and it's in the exit polls.

Older voters, working class whites, adult women, and Catholics.

They support her overwhelmingly, and they historically vote in greater percentages than the blocs that comprise his coalition, which includes young voters, African Americans, and upscale independents with no allegiance to either political party.

Since winning the presidency takes 270 electoral votes (based on the popular vote in each state), let's examine the biggies. Here are the top 11 electoral states:

California - 55
Texas - 34
New York - 31
Florida - 27
Illinois - 21
Pennsylvania - 21
Ohio - 20
Michigan - 17
Georgia - 15
New Jersey - 15
North Carolina - 15

Obama won the popular vote of Democrats in only two of them: his home state of Illinois and Georgia. He may add a third, North Carolina, in two weeks.

Of these 11 states, five will surely go dem next fall regardless of the nominee (California, New York, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey), and three others will go repub (Texas, North Carolina, Georgia). These eight states are already betrothed for November, so crowing about a primary win is pointless.

This matters because a central argument of Obama's candidacy is that he'll be an electoral college "game changer" in the general election. However, the results from the 11 largest states in the country don't advance this highly touted selling point.

The other three states on the list (Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio) are swing states. Pennsylvania is not so much a swing state as a "must win" for Democrats, and it's no given. In 1996, Bill Clinton won re-election there by 10 points. Gore won by only 5 points in 2000, and Kerry (with an actual Heinz on his arm!) won by a mere 1.5 points in 2004. See a pattern?

Hillary Clinton's wins in the '08 "swinger" primaries, with both candidates on the ballot, were not even close: Florida by 300,000, Ohio by 237,000, Pennsylvania by 217,000. That's three-quarters of a million vote advantage for Clinton vs. Obama among Democrats in just three large states the party needs in November.

Comments by Obama's campaign after Pennsylvania seemed defensive. First, manager David Plouffe said it's "a flawed exercise to suggest that performance in primaries is a leading indicator of what would happen in a general election." Yes and no. Hopefully, those who supported the loser lick their wounds and return, augmented by millions of new voters. Still, what large numbers of party regulars do in spring primaries is undoubtedly a "leading indicator" of current sentiment.

Then, strategist David Axelrod talked specifics on NPR, saying the "white working class has gone to the Republican for many elections" and that Democratic candidates "haven't solely relied on the demographic." The key word is "solely." We know that Democrats don't need the majority of this group, but winning - from state legislatures to the Oval Office - demands a plurality of them. Axelrod himself knows this because his onetime patrón, Chicago mayor Richard Daley, owes his success in part to voters like these.

The only reason Obama's team is now dismissive of them is because he's not attracting them in necessary numbers.

Some say his appeal among independents might "expand the electoral map" in November, giving him a state here or there that has previously gone repub. The fact is that literally 30 states (from Delaware to Wyoming) are precast as blue or red, so only 20 or fewer states will even be in play, and of those less than a handful might really flip sides.

Obama officials cite only three or four possibilities: Virginia, Missouri, Colorado, Nevada. Yet these states are slowly trending dem anyway, so Clinton could win them, too. Besides, their electoral totals are small. You don't get the 270 electoral votes if you're winning Missouri (11) and Colorado (9) while simultaneously losing large crucial states like Ohio (20) and Pennsylvania (21).

That's new math even Hillary wouldn't try and add up!

Clinton's argument may be self-serving, but it's also true: the Democratic standard-bearer, whoever it is, can't afford to have tens of millions of working class voters, women, and those over age 45 unenergized on November 4th. John McCain will win if that happens, and Obama has so far failed to motivate them in meaningful ways.

It's a fact today, and if it's a fact six months from now in big swing states, it's a problem.

I'll be a loyal foot soldier regardless of the nominee. All Democrats want to win the White House, and at least half want to see Obama as the nominee. The fair question is, can we achieve one with the other?