The Pew Center for the People and the Press released a poll this week, conducting a trial heat between President Obama and the Republican rivals vying to face him this fall. What is surprising is that as of 200 days out from the general election, Obama has managed to replicate his electoral coalition from 2008.
Why is this important? First, candidates can’t just rely on their party’s base of supporters. The United States isn’t a nation with one majority political party; it is a coalition country. As Gallup and Pew report, the electorate divides itself roughly into thirds. In Pew’s survey, 32 percent of the electorate consider themselves a Democrat, 26 percent line up with Republicans, and 36 percent consider themselves Independent.
If thse Independents had to pick a party, 17 percent said they lean Democratic to 13 percent Republican. Combining those “leaners” into the party numbers would give Democrats a national 49-39 edge in identification. But these independent leaners tend to give more headaches to their parties than those who are firm partisans.
Over the past few election cycles, exit polls show us that those who identify as partisan (Republican or Democrat) will typically vote 90 percent of the time with that party. That’s a solid bet that most analysts would take on election predictions.
But among independents, we see a much more disagreement. In the 2008 national exit poll, independents split 52-44 for Obama over McCain. But in 2010, self-identified independents went 56-37 for Republican House candidates over Democratic candidates. Unlike their partisan identifiers, the independent “swing voters” will make or break a candidate’s campaign.
With 200 days to go before November 6, every political analyst has North Carolina as one of the true battleground states; more importantly, North Carolina tends to reflect the voting patterns that we see at the national level, with one critical exception.
In the North Carolina presidential battle of 2008, 90 percent of NC Democrats voted for their party, while 95 percent of NC Republican identifiers voted for their party. That’s very close to the national average. But NC independents tend to be more right-of-center, with 60 percent of independents voted for McCain. So how did Barak Obama win North Carolina in 2008?
Part of the reason is that Obama’s campaign “expanded” the electorate, particularly his own base of support. In 2004’s presidential election in North Carolina (where Bush won NC by 12 percent), Democrats were 39 percent of the electorate; in 2008, self-identified Democrats were 42 percent of the electorate. On the other side of the aisle, Republicans made up 40 percent of the 2004 electorate, while in 2008 they dropped to 31 percent of the electorate. And independents went from 21 percent in 2004 to 27 percent in 2008.
Ultimately, electorates are like soups; what goes into the pot makes for an interesting taste for some candidates, or something that sours on the palate for other candidates.
For both Democrats and Republicans, they will find North Carolina to have just about the right ingredients: according to Gallup’s State of the States report, North Carolina breaks down 43-42 percent between Democrats and Republicans, including leaners for both parties. Recognizing how truly competitive North Carolina is this year, candidates have to consider how to increase their size of the pot.
Electoral coalitions make or break a candidate’s fortunes at the ballot box, and with Obama seeming to reassemble the same coalition this far out from the general election, it may be an indicator that things are shaping up for the President’s bid for re-election. But as I told WFAE’s Scott Graf recently, the only prediction that I’m making is that this election year will be unpredictable. And that’s probably the safest bet to make right now.