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How Demographics Are Shaping Campaign Strategy


Now, both campaigns are slicing and dicing the electorate, trying to find the exact combination of voters that results in a win, find just a few more of your people, identify them, get them to the polls. Ronald Brownstein of National Journal has been examining this. When we spoke several weeks ago, Brownstein said the following: President Obama's strategy is to capture 80 percent of the minority vote and at least compete for some of the white vote, as he did when he won in 2008.

For Romney to win, he would need 61 percent or more of the white vote, which is a big majority. And each campaign, of course, is also looking for a big turnout in their types of voters. Now, Brownstein says those overall formulas have not changed, but we were talking there about national numbers. The election is decided state by state, a drive for 270 electoral votes, and the campaigns have tweaked their strategies in each state.

ROBERT BROWNSTEIN: You know, a year ago I would have said to you that Obama's path to 270 was mostly likely through the Sun Belt states, places like Colorado, Virginia, even North Carolina and Florida, that are being redefined by growing diversity and an increasing number of college-educated white collar whites who tend to be more open to Democrats because they are more socially liberal.

But in fact, as you get down to the end, some of those states look very difficult for him and what he is counting on most are these bulwarks in the upper Midwest of Iowa, Wisconsin and above all, Ohio. And these are states that demographically should be tougher for him. They are older, whiter blue collar states. And yet what's happened is that he is running better among white working class voters in the upper Midwest than anywhere else.

INSKEEP: So how is Obama doing better among white voters in the Midwest?

BROWNSTEIN: I think it really has two important dimensions. The most obvious is the auto bailout. The auto bailout provides something tangible government has done that has benefitted those voters, who as you know have grown increasingly skeptical that almost anything government does will benefit them. The other thing I think is a little more subtle.

It's that by all evidence the portrayal of Romney as a corporate raider, the Bain story, as someone who kind of came to town, got rich and shut down the factory, that has a lot more emotional resonance in the Rust Belt than it does in the Sun Belt. And I think the combination of the bailout and the greater resonance of the Bain story is allowing him to run eight, 10 points better among non-college whites in those three critical states than he is nationally.

And that right now is the last hill that Romney has to get over if he is going to get to 270 himself.

INSKEEP: You know, the most viscerally powerful ad I have seen lately, whether it's fair is another question, but it was targeted specifically at Ohio. It's an Obama ad. It says Obama did the auto bailout. Mitt Romney was against the auto bailout. And the tagline, the end of the ad says: Mitt Romney, not one of us.

BROWNSTEIN: Absolutely. You know, look, the three word tagline of Mitt Romney's summer ad on Medicare encapsulated his kind of populist argument: Not for you. Took the money from Medicare, gave it into an entitlement program that's not for you. And that plays on that feeling in a big portion of the white electorate that government programs, in effect, redistribute their money to others.

And you know, the other in that sentence is often undefined, but a lot of people can fill in the imagery in their head of what that looks like. Not one of us is the counter. I mean it's kind of a class based populism. And it has more - it has been more effective there than anywhere else.

INSKEEP: So you mention the president managing to carve out a slice of the white vote in vital places that seems to be improving his odds at least at the moment, at least based on the polls that we have. What about on the other side? Has Mitt Romney done anything to slightly improve his chances in critical places?

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think about the white electorate. The two big factors that shape the division of allegiance among whites are both gender and education. If you kind of think of whites as a quadrant, college men, college women, non-college men, non-college women, Romney was gaining even before the first debate in three of those four quadrants. Up until that first debate, Obama was holding what had been his strongest group in 2008, which are these college-educated white women, who tend to be the most socially liberal part of the white electorate.

Now they are declining as well, at least in the national numbers. I think both sides believe, interestingly, that - at least among whites, that men are kind of more set and that there's more volatility among women. Look at that second debate. Even before he was asked about it, you know, the president brought up Planned Parenthood twice. He brought up pay equity.

So Romney is pretty much running the same argument everywhere. One part ideology, government is too big and too expensive; one part pragmatism, the results of the past four years don't deserve another four years. The president really is running two different campaigns here in the last couple weeks. He's running a campaign of economic populism in the Midwest, as we've discussed, and in the Sun Belt he's by and large running a campaign of cultural liberalism aimed at these upper middle class whites, especially women.

INSKEEP: And when you look through surveys state by state, day by day, you see different results. You can't put too much stock in any one survey, but Brownstein calls our attention to a Washington Post/ABC survey from Virginia showing the president winning college-educated whites, but losing non-college-educated whites, one of the signs of demographic divisions in the electorate this year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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