Resurgent Republicans Close Gap In Key States

Susan Page
USA Today

President Obama is moving to energize the Democratic base for his re-election campaign, but in the case of a dozen battleground states, he’ll have to work harder than four years ago to find it.

Since the heady days of 2008, a new USA TODAY/Gallup Swing States Poll finds the number of voters who identify themselves as Democratic or Democratic-leaning in these key states has eroded, down by 4 percentage points, while the ranks of Republicans have climbed by 5 points.

Republican voters also are more attentive to the campaign, more enthusiastic about the election and more convinced that the outcome matters.

The contrasting conditions of the nation’s two major political parties — discouraged Democrats and resurgent Republicans — underscore how different Obama’s re-election campaign is from the contest four years ago.

Consider the math: In 2008, when Obama carried the swing states by 8 percentage points, Democrats there swamped Republicans in party identification by 11 points. Now, that partisan edge has tightened to a statistically insignificant 2 points.

And the “enthusiasm gap” that helped fuel a Democratic victory last time has turned into a Republican asset. Sixty-one percent of Republicans say they are extremely or very enthusiastic about voting for president next year, compared with 47% of Democrats.

Among the most enthusiastic are some of the GOP’s core voters: conservatives, middle-aged men and those 50 to 64 years old. Those who are least enthused include core Democratic groups that were critical to Obama’s election in 2008, including minorities and younger voters.

“Enthusiasm is a tremendous benefit,” Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus said in an interview. “We’re going to be able to mobilize a grass-roots army. It helps us recruit volunteers and run absentee-ballot programs. We can fill rooms with people making phone calls and going door-to-door.”

He says enthusiasm has shifted to the GOP because voters who were inclined to favor Obama in 2008 now see him as “a fraud.”

Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, disputes the idea that Democrats are at a disadvantage. “It’s not what we’re seeing on the ground,” he said in an interview. “We have built a really good ground operation. We’ve spent the last year building the infrastructure for a ground operation to turn out our votes, and the Republicans just haven’t.”

He notes that the president has attracted more than a million donors to his campaign this year, 40% of them first-time contributors, and has been able to deploy volunteers who have had more than 1 million “conversations” with other voters on his behalf.

This is the second in a series of surveys that USA TODAY and Gallup will be taking through the 2012 campaign focused on 12 swing states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Most other states and the District of Columbia are all but guaranteed to be won by one party or the other, giving Obama a likely base of 196 electoral votes and the Republican nominee a base of 191. A candidate needs 270 to win the White House.

But these battlegrounds — chosen based on their voting histories, the results of the 2010 midterms and demographic trends — are up for grabs. Obama carried all of them in 2008 and needs to claim half of their electoral votes this time to win a second term.

In swing states, Obama trails former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney among registered voters by 5 points, 43% vs. 48%, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich by 3, 45% vs. 48%.

That’s a bit worse than the president fares nationwide, where he leads Gingrich 50%-44% and edges Romney 47%-46%.

Amy Rybarczyk, 37, a pharmacist from Uniontown, Ohio, who was among those surveyed, voted with élan for Obama in 2008, helping him carry what has been the nation’s quintessential swing state for a generation.

This time, she wants to see which contender the GOP nominates before deciding.

“I’m still kind of waiting to see how things are going to turn out,” Rybarczyk said in a follow-up interview. “I just feel that the system is so broken that anybody you put there is ineffective. It’s hard to see actual change happen.”

Tim Shedd, 32, a transportation consultant from Denver who voted for Republican John McCain in 2008, worries that the GOP has “a crazy collection of candidates” running. Even though he hasn’t settled on one to support — he was intrigued by Herman Cain until the former corporate executive suspended his campaign amid scandal — Shedd already is looking forward to Election Day.

“I feel better about the Republican chances of winning this time,” he says.

Can’t wait? For what?

The USA TODAY/Gallup Poll asked Americans which better described their attitude: You can’t wait for the campaign to begin? Or you can’t wait for it to end? On this, there is more national unity than on any other question posed: Get it over with, already.

The sentiment is even stronger in swing states than the nation as a whole: 70% of registered voters across the country and 74% of those living in the battlegrounds say they can’t wait for the campaign to be over. That’s the overwhelming view in both political parties and every demographic group.

Despite that cantankerous attitude, voters are paying more attention to this campaign, and earlier, than in the past.

Two-thirds of registered voters nationwide say they have given quite a lot of thought to the election.

That’s more than double the number paying close attention at this point before the 1992 and 2000 elections, and a jump of about 20 percentage points compared with 1980, 1984 and 2004.

In 2008, interest reached today’s level just after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary had been held, when both parties were in the throes of hard-fought nomination contests.

This time, Republicans are more likely to be paying a lot of attention than Democrats — 69% to 48% — and they are more likely to say the election’s outcome will make a major difference to the course of the economy.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they avidly support one of the GOP contenders. For many, it means they avidly oppose Obama.

The antipathy to the president will help Republicans unite behind their nominee whoever he or she is, says Doug Gross, who in 2002 was the GOP’s gubernatorial nominee in Iowa, one of the swing states. Unaffiliated in this year’s presidential contest, he led the Romney campaign in the state in 2008, and acknowledges that some Iowa Republicans are cool toward the former Bay State governor.

“If Republicans feel Romney is their best chance to beat Obama, they will turn out in force,” Gross predicts. “Running against an incumbent is a negative intensity. It’s not necessary to have a positive intensity.”

Among Democrats, economic woes weigh on some who had hoped Obama would be able to bring about more of the change he promised.

The demographic groups who provided his highest levels of support in 2008 are the same ones who have been hit hardest by the nation’s slow economic recovery.

While the nation’s overall unemployment rate dropped to 8.6% in November, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that African-American unemployment actually rose from October to 15.5%. For those 20-24, it was up to 14.2%. The jobless rate for Hispanics was unchanged at 11.4%.

“I thought more would get done,” says Andre Donaldson of Burgaw, N.C., a 51-year-old financial analyst who voted for Obama in 2008 and plans to vote for him again. “What worries me the most is people’s ability to make a living. The job market is so bad. I think that it all stems from the housing market going bad, and then it just spirals.”

Wooing independents

The decline in the number of voters who identify themselves as Democrats — and the rise in those who call themselves independents — complicates the president’s re-election strategy.

In the swing states, the number of self-identified Democrats (not including those who lean Democratic) fell from 35% to 30% since 2008. The number of independents rose 7 points, 35% to 42%.

“It means that the votes that President Obama needs to cobble together are going to be made up more of independents than they were last time,” says Lanae Erickson of Third Way. The centrist Democratic think tank last week released a study tracking trends in voter registration in battleground states. “This time, it’s going to be much, much closer, and in a closer race those independents are going to put him over the top.”

In three of the eight swing states that have party registration — Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire — there are now more independents than either Republicans or Democrats.

Obama’s problem: Independents by definition aren’t loyal to a party’s nominee. And the full-throated appeals that help energize the Democrats’ most loyal partisans — African Americans, liberals, Hispanics and others — can put off independent voters.

Republicans face a similar problem. A nomination contest that pulls candidates to the right to appeal to the most conservative primary voters can create problems in the general election.

But the nation’s ideological makeup creates more stress for Democrats than Republicans. In the 12 swing states identified by USA TODAY, 44% of those surveyed are conservatives, more than double the 21% who call themselves liberal.

To win a majority, the GOP needs to attract the lion’s share of conservatives plus only a fraction of the 35% who call themselves moderates.

In contrast, the Democratic candidate has to claim the solid support not only of liberals but also most of the moderates.

In recent days, Obama clearly has been trying to thread that needle.

In decisions that delighted environmentalists and gay rights advocates, he has delayed approval for a oil pipeline that would stretch from Canada to Texas and announced foreign aid would be used to promote gay rights abroad.

At the same time, in decisions that pleased conservatives, his administration has blocked an FDA decision to allow unrestricted sale of the morning-after pill and scrapped clean-air regulations planned at the EPA.

He delivered what the White House billed as a major speech last week in Osawatomie, Kan. — an iconic site where Republican Teddy Roosevelt delivered a classic populist stemwinder.

“The breathtaking greed of a few … plunged our economy and the world into a crisis from which we’re still fighting to recover,” he declared in words that echoed the sentiments of Occupy Wall Street protesters. “It’s claimed the jobs and the homes and the basic security of millions of people — innocent, hard-working Americans who had met their responsibilities but were still left holding the bag.”

But he also distanced himself from the mantra of Occupy demonstrators against “the 1%” — that is, the richest Americans who have benefited from a widening income inequality and exercise outsized influence.

“I’m here in Kansas to reaffirm my deep conviction that we’re greater together than we are on our own,” he quickly added. “These aren’t Democratic values or Republican values. These aren’t 1% values or 99% values. They’re American values.”

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