Voter demographics will determine the political destinies of President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney. But while Hispanics are often identified as the key to victory in 2012, the real kingmakers are still middle-aged white suburban voters.
And there, Mr. Obama has a problem.
A new CNN/ORC poll shows Mr. Obama trailing Mr. Romney among white voters by 18 percentage points. The President’s support among the biggest block of the electorate stands at just 39 per cent.
The survey included voters who “lean” toward one candidate or the other, not just those who have actually decided whom they will vote for. But the poll does underscore the ground Mr. Obama needs to make up among white voters in order to win in November.
It also helps to explain why the Obama campaign has relentlessly hit at Mr. Romney’s record running the private equity firm Bain Capital more than a decade ago.
The ads are directed mainly at working-class white voters, a critical chunk of the electorate that proved the least responsive to Mr. Obama’s charm in 2008 and which has only grown colder towards the President since.
While top Democrats including former President Bill Clinton and Newark, N.J. mayor Cory Booker have publicly questioned the wisdom of attacking Mr. Romney’s business record, the Obama campaign and a Super PAC supporting the President have continued to hammer at the former Massachusetts governor’s “profits-before-people” philosophy.
On Tuesday, the Obama campaign launched yet another negative television ad campaign using the Bain narrative.
“Mitt Romney’s companies were pioneers in outsourcing U.S. jobs to low-wage countries,” according to the narrator of the ad, which is set to run in nine so-called “battleground states.”
A single poll is not in itself a reliable gauge of public opinion. But the CNN survey is worth dwelling upon because of the detailed demographic breakdown of respondents it provides and its relatively low margins of error for each group of the electorate.
For white voters, the margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
In 2008, John McCain won the white vote by 12 percentage points, besting Mr. Obama 55 per cent to 43 per cent, according to exit polls. Mr. Obama won overwhelmingly among blacks (95 per cent) and Hispanics (67 per cent).
Turnout will be critical in determining the outcome in November. The proportion of eligible white voters has declined a tad from 74 per cent of the electorate in 2008, and the share of the Hispanic electorate risen to about 11 per cent. But that shift may not be reflected at the polls, as voter registration among Latinos this year trails 2008 levels.
That could change with Mr. Obama’s efforts to mobilize Hispanics. His move to halt deportations of Latinos under 30 who were brought to the United States illegally as children is part of that effort. And a Supreme Court decision last week partially upholding Republican-led Arizona’s controversial crackdown on illegal immigrants could further help Mr. Obama get Hispanics to the polls.
But without improving his standing among white voters, especially among the over-50 set that turns out in big numbers, Mr. Obama faces a much narrower path to victory than in 2008.
The CNN poll showed Mr. Romney leading Mr. Obama 51 per cent to 43 per cent in 15 battleground states, with a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.
That is the mirror image of a Wall Street Journal poll last week that put Mr. Obama ahead 50 per cent to 42 per cent in 12 battleground states.
The difference in the results might be explained by the fact that CNN included Arizona, Indiana and Missouri among its somewhat larger basket of battleground states. All three lean Republican.
Among suburban voters, CNN found Mr. Romney leading 50 per cent to 46 per cent, a result that is within the poll’s four percentage point margin of error.
Overall, the poll gave Mr. Obama a slim three point lead – 49 per cent to 46 per cent – among registered voters, with a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.