On the Supposed Barack-Solid Base

by Daniel Foster

Michael and Jonah, nice try! But you won’t get me to re-litigate Sarah Palin’s electability (the swelling has just gone down from my last attempt to do so). But I do think Michael, and Cillizza, miss one big factor in the supposed solidness of Obama’s base: first-time voters.

2008 set a record with nearly 15 million first-time voters coming out to the polls — many of them young, many of them from otherwise solidly Democratic demographics. Per a study from the lefty Project Vote, these voters went for Obama by more than two to one. That’s 10 million ballots.

Anyone think these kids are as jazzed about hope and change as they were three years ago? Anyone think they’ll rouse themselves in anywhere near as great a number? I don’t. I thought at the time and I still think that a lot of these first-time voters were going to be lost in 2012 no matter what. They showed up in 2008 because they wanted to be a part of the historic election of the country’s first African-American president. Some for honorable and understandable reasons; some, frankly, as a form of moral masturbation (don’t underestimate the “some of my best friends are black” self-esteem-boosting vote, especially among the vaguely liberal but otherwise politically disengaged denizens of young, white America). A goodly chunk of these were never likely to show up again, let alone for a president who has failed so spectacularly to deliver the transformation he over-promised.

Moreover, there is I suspect a great deal of overlap between first-time Obama voters in 2008 and those who have, in the last three months, at least had a cup of fair-trade organic coffee at one of the Occupy camps. These types are, demonstrably, politically engaged, but their energy has always been insurgent in nature. This worked to Democrats’ advantage in 2004 and, especially, 2008, when The Man’s power was waxing and he had to be taken down a peg. Now Obama is The Man. Do I think some of the OWS energy can nevertheless be harnessed by the Obama campaign once the general gets into full swing? Sure, but not all of it, and maybe not enough of it.

For all his other flaws, if Mitt Romney is the nominee, I think it makes turning out the anti-establishmentarians and first-time voters (let alone the independents) who formed Obama’s 2008 winning coalition even harder. That’s because, contra Michael, I just don’t think Mitt Romney pisses off liberals in the way George W. Bush did — the way that Herman Cain and Rick Perry do, what with all their smirking and their plain-spoken Southernness. Also contra Cillizza and Michael, I don’t think the flip-side — that Mitt doesn’t excite the conservative base — matters all that much, precisely because Obama pisses them off. Along with self-esteem, spite is another powerful motivator for marginal voters. Mitt just doesn’t catalyze it, Obama does. 

In the past few months I’ve had a lot of conversations about the election with liberal and moderate friends and acquaintances — lefty bloggers and MSM reporters, progressive PAC hacks, center-left foreign policy wonks, moderate bankers and blue-collar working stiffs who’ve soured on Obama, and even a pair of anarchist artists who spent time at Occupy San Francisco. I say this not only to catalog how many interesting people I know (“some of my best friends are Obama voters!”) but to report on the defining feature of all these conversations: Mitt just doesn’t bother them that much. They buy the line that he’s a tinkering technocrat and a competent manager, and they like that he hasn’t made too many noises about hot-button cultural issues. At worst, they figure, he’ll be status quo. And going to the polls means you’ll get status quo either way, why go to the polls at all?

Now, you may read that and despair (though I think this view of Romney is too simple, and manages to give him both too much and too little credit). But there is a reason “generic Republican” has been polling better against Obama than any of the individuated ones. A lot of Republicans and conservatives will be going to the polls just to oust Obama, and a lot of Democrats and liberals just won’t care enough to stop them.

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