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Obama's electoral coalition is crumbling

The swing voters who turned out in droves to support the president aren't likely to back his party in November. Even core supporters express unhappiness with Democrats.

September 11, 2010|By James Oliphant and Kathleen Hennessey

Reporting from Washington — Nearly two years ago, the political world could only marvel at the breadth of voter support for Barack Obama.

The new president had won over voters once thought to have abandoned his party for good. He'd found new reservoirs of support among groups many thought were tapped out.

He energized a coalition — made up of blacks, women, Latinos, young voters and large numbers of suburbanites — that some believed would keep Democrats in power for years to come.

A scant 20 months later, the Obama coalition is frayed and frazzled.

A majority of those who voted for Obama still approve of the job he is doing. But that number is eroding.

Surprisingly, support for the president among Latinos, young people and women has dropped as much as it has among groups that were considered less likely to stick with the president, such as white males, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Support among suburbanites has dropped dramatically too, surveys show, while African American voters remain Obama's most loyal constituency and his fiercest defenders.

The trend is familiar to political scientists. A plunge in approval is common after a president enjoys an early honeymoon period. The disapproval of voters from all walks of life and from across the country might be attributed to a sour economy, a sort of national queasiness.

"What we're seeing is a general frustration with the inability of the government to fix the problems more quickly," said Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center. "This is expressed in anti-incumbent sentiment and negative opinions of the president. This also suggests that improvement in national conditions might be accompanied by an uptick in support for Obama."

For that reason, approval ratings at this point in a presidency are a poor indicator of a president's chances at reelection.

But dozens of interviews with Obama voters across five swing areas show that the warning signals are blinking for the president's party.

Obama voters evince little interest in the midterm election. When they express goodwill toward the president, it rarely extends to his allies in Congress. Many do not consider themselves Democrats.

Pew's survey experts routinely ask respondents to characterize the president in a single word. In their most recent poll, conducted this summer, more respondents than ever answered with the word "disappointing."

Some who threw their lot in with Obama expressed a sense of being let down by the man who promised change and pledged to transform the country. Some attributed that to their own lofty expectations and, perhaps, their naivete. Others pointed to what they saw as his lack of focus on the still-faltering economy.

And some suggested they were simply hoodwinked by a smooth-talking politician.

"What I've come to the realization is that the president was an absolutely fantastic campaigner. He was a perfect preacher-slash-minister-slash-professor," said Peter Gallo, a concert promoter in Raleigh, N.C. "He doesn't have the skill to legislate, to build coalitions. He does not have the skill to bring people in and say, 'Come on and let's get this done.'"

Gallo's words — in various ways — were echoed in Fairfax County, Va., outside Washington; in northern Nevada; in greater Philadelphia; in the suburbs of Ohio; and in a college town in southern Virginia.

All are regions crucial to Democrats. The president will need these voters in two years. His party needs them now.

The fast-growing Raleigh-Durham area was dominated by Obama in 2008. He took up to 70% of the vote in some counties — and helped turn North Carolina blue for the first time since 1976. Now, polls show that Obama's healthcare plan is unpopular and that North Carolina voters are favoring Republicans in state legislative races.

About 2,500 miles away in Reno, Douglas Damon was drawn to Obama, in part, because he saw the candidate as a bridge builder.

"I believe in inclusivity. I believe America is a melting pot. I believed he really represented an opportunity to bring people together," Damon, 64, said from the offices of his beverage manufacturing company in Sparks, Nev.

But Damon is disappointed that Obama hasn't tried harder to work with Republicans. "His leadership skills have been lacking, in my mind," he said. "He seems to dismiss opinions that differ with his vision totally."

Nevada is the setting for a high-stakes fight between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and GOP challenger Sharron Angle. Damon is undecided in that race, and unapologetically calls himself a RINO — Republican in name only. "I'm totally disgusted with both parties right now," he says.

But many who backed Obama refuse to assign him all of the blame for a struggling economy.

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