I think it’s fair to say that Barack Obama has proved to be a polarizing political figure. You can argue about who to blame for that reality — some accuse Obama of divisive policies and rhetoric; others argue that certain segments of the electorate have responded negatively for reasons that have nothing to do with how Obama has governed, and are instead related to his race and background.
For the moment, let’s set that debate aside and look at the numbers, which are pretty stark and suggest that Obama has indeed become one of the most polarizing political figures in the modern era.
For example, let’s look at the results of the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, which overall gave Obama a lead of 51-44 percent among registered voters. But when you start breaking that down demographically, things get interesting.
Among non-white Americans, Obama leads Mitt Romney by 59 percentage points, 78-19 percent.
Among women voters, Obama leads by a margin of 19 points, 57-38 percent.
Romney’s only significant advantage — 61-35 percent — is among white male voters. His 26-point lead among that demographic group is what keeps him at least competitive in the poll.
The Post/ABC poll did not break down responses by age, but a Pew poll (see chart to right) taken a month earlier did. In addition to confirming Obama’s advantages among women and minorities, Pew found that among voters 18-29, Obama led Romney by 61-35 percent, a 26-point breakout.
Romney performed best among American voters aged 65 and older. But I was particularly struck by his performance among women aged 18-49: He loses that core group by a startling 31 points, 64-33 percent. That’s basically a 2-1 advantage for Obama.
So how do those numbers compare historically? The best gauge may be the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, a contest that had no incumbent and basically ended in a tie. According to CNN exit poll data from that election, Gore had an 11-point advantage over George Bush among women, compared to Obama’s current 19-point advantage. Among voters 18-29, Gore and Bush were essentially tied, a far cry from the 28-point lead that Obama now enjoys.
So what’s it all mean? Well, it’s pretty clear that what you see when you look at the political scene depends an awful lot on who you are. The lens through which you view things — your background, upbringing, life experience, etc. –doesn’t dictate your politics, but it does strongly influence it. The intensity of that influence seems to be increasing over time.
Looking at the data, it’s also hard to argue against the notion that for whatever reason, the Republican Party is becoming the party of middle-aged white men, dominating in that core group but losing appeal in most other areas. And although the data don’t address this, my sense is that the harder the GOP works to maintain its grip on that group, the more difficult it becomes to reach outside it that demographic and broaden the party’s appeal. I don’t have the slightest idea of how it can break out of that spiral.
If you have some other interpretation of the data, I’ll be glad to listen.
– Jay Bookman