Ronald Brownstein’s post, “Just Like the Gipper” at the National Journal can add clarity to any discussion about Mitt Romney’s prospects for winning in November. Brownstein spotlights Reagan’s success in winning the votes of whites without college degrees as a key to his victory — and explains that demographic changes since then have reduced the size of this constituency in percentage terms, but not their pivotal importance to Romney’s hopes. As Brownstein argues:
…Reagan won 58.8 percent of the vote, 49 states, and an unmatched 525 Electoral College votes. But he did so in a country demographically very different from today’s America. Those changes may be the most important asset available to Obama as he struggles against an intensifying economic undertow. Yet even that might not save the president.
For an upcoming National Journal report illuminating voter trends over the past eight presidential elections, Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz conducted a detailed analysis of exit polls from the 1984 race. That exercise captures the magnitude of the cultural and demographic changes that have remade the nation since then.
When Reagan routed Democratic nominee Walter Mondale in 1984, the white working class dominated the electorate. White voters without a four-year college degree cast 61 percent of all ballots that year, and they gave Reagan 66 percent of their votes, the NJ analysis found. White voters with at least a four-year college degree cast an additional 27 percent of the vote, and 62 percent of them went for Reagan. Eighty-one percent of minorities backed Mondale, but they represented just 12 percent of all voters then.
But Republicans face a much tougher demographic breakdown today, as Brownstein explains:
By 2008, minorities had more than doubled their vote share to 26 percent. College-educated whites had increased their share to 35 percent. The big losers were whites without a college degree, who dropped from 61 percent of all voters to 39 percent–a decline of more than one-third from their level in 1984. That is social change at breakneck speed.
By itself, this evolution in America’s social structure goes a long way toward explaining why Democrats have won the popular vote in four of the five presidential contests since 1992 after losing (usually emphatically) five of the six races from 1968 to 1988. Mondale in 1984 carried only 40.6 percent of the popular vote. But if college-educated whites, noncollege whites, and minorities all voted as they did in 1984, but were present in the same proportions they represented in 2008, Mondale would have taken nearly 48 percent of the vote. Conversely, if those three groups voted as they did in 2008, but were present in their 1984 proportions, Obama would have lost convincingly.
Then there is the rising tide of educated women, who are also a tough sell for Republicans, as Brownstein explains: “…College-educated white men grew only slightly, college-educated white women increased their share by more than half. Those women, most of whom are socially liberal and receptive to activist government, consistently support Democrats more than other whites…” Brownstein adds:
Most polls this spring show Obama running near the 52 percent he won among those upscale white women in 2008, and also remaining very close to his 80 percent showing among all minorities. If Obama can hold that level of support from those two groups, Romney could amass a national majority only by winning nearly two-thirds of all other whites–the men with college degrees, and the men and women without them. To put that challenge in perspective, Reagan, while winning his historic landslide, carried a combined 66.5 percent of those three groups. To defeat Obama, in other words, Romney may need to equal Reagan.
Brownstein concedes that matching Reagan’s support with the less-educated white voters is possible, and if Romney can also make some inroads with educated women and minority voters, that could be his route to victory. Brownstein notes that Obama is doing about as badly with working class white voters as did Mondale, and the economy is a pivotal factor going forward. On the other hand, Brownstein adds that “Obama has a much sturdier base than Mondale did.”
But if Romney fails to energize white working class voters, and Obama turns out his key constituencies, Romney will lose.