Obama is crazy for his base

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My admiration for Obama stems from an abiding belief that the best single measure of an incumbent’s viability is his standing with his base. The president and his campaigners recognize that their prospects are clouded by the poor performance of his administration in fixing the nation’s economy. Regular readers know that I have been saying since last October that the president’s chances for reelection are pretty much stillborn given the economic environment. But, for certain, Obama’s chances cannot possibly be resurrected unless he gets his base back in tow. Key elements of his 2008 base, especially union members, working-class whites, young college graduates and racial minorities, have been especially hard-hit by this economic downturn and might be wondering whether it makes sense to chant, “Four more years.” Sure, Mitt Romney is likely to seem so alien to some of these groups that few of these disaffected bits and pieces of Obama’s base might defect, but it’s entirely plausible that many could just sit on their hands through November, not contributing, not campaigning, not voting. They just take a pass. Obama’s people know this and are risking it all to try and get the base back and energized.

I’m not suggesting that the president risks outright losing a majority of core base constituencies like unions or minorities or youth, but rather that the size of his margin among some of these groups could be eroded enough to deny his reelection. Consider reactions to his full embrace of gay marriage. While this seems like a cleverly opportunistic ploy to energize gay constituencies and tap into their considerable fundraising capabilities, it has been widely speculated that this could turn off other portions of his Democratic base, like minority or blue-collar white males. While the president needs to keep the support of 90-plus percent of these voters, I can easily see his net support of voters plus non-voters bringing his yield among these constituencies to 80 or 85 percent, a mathematical problem for the president’s minimum-winning-coalition builders.

The gay play is particularly awkward given the economic mess. Most voters, even those in the liberal Democratic base Obama covets, just aren’t interested in “social issues.” Similar diffidence will result if the president courts peaceniks by closing Guantánamo or woos Jews with a tough stance on Palestinian statehood. Economically struggling core Democrat constituencies will see the president as majoring in minors, and doing so at their expense “just to get votes.” If Obama chases after students with loan forgiveness or awards amnesty to illegal workers, he might be seen as focusing on the real problems of recession. But the other stuff, like world peace, might seem superfluous.

Yet Obama has no choice but to pursue with passion each of the core elements of his winning coalition of 2008. This is why we have seen the phony “war on women,” the gay-marriage initiative, the student-loan hearings, the vitriolic bashing of “Big Oil” and so forth. Job 
No. 1 is getting the base back. Even if it blows up his reelection, the president has no Plan B.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.