• Politics

In Search of the Changing American Voter

8 minute read
Mark J. Penn

The 137 million voters registered to go to the polls this November will not look like the 131 million who voted for President in 2008. And they are vastly different from the 96 million who voted the year Bill Clinton was re-elected. The U.S. has been changed by circumstance, economics, demographics and the simple passage of time. We are a youth-obsessed country that has never been older. We think of ourselves as politically polarized, but the edges are shrinking as the political center expands. The two campaigns are focusing on the ethnically static industrial Midwest while Latino voters in the South and West boom. We talk of ourselves as a nation of struggling workers, but the votes that matter most may be the swelling ranks of high-earning, college-educated professionals.

In this complex landscape, battlegrounds appear to be everywhere. Barack Obama must match or improve on his remarkable 2008 showing among Latino voters. That seems likely but is not guaranteed. Mitt Romney enjoys a striking advantage among America’s fast-growing senior-citizen set, which is worried about the economy. Independents are almost evenly split, with Romney enjoying a slight advantage. Which means the election will be decided by a hard-to-typecast kind of voter, one likely drawn from the growing ranks of new professions that have emerged from the U.S.’s high-tech and services-based economy. Neither candidate has captured the hearts, heads or wallets of these voters, many of whom earn six figures. Quite the contrary: it defies political logic that Obama has made higher taxes on upper-income voters such a critical part of his campaign when those same voters are in a position to determine the outcome. Romney risks losing them with even the slightest appeal to voters on conservative social issues. These voters are pro-technology and internationalist in outlook and are, as a group, at the core of the U.S.’s competitive advantage. Like three other voter groups, they are up for grabs in 2012.

Penn, the CEO of Penn Schoen Berland, served as a White House pollster for Bill Clinton and was an adviser on his 1996 re-election campaign

1. The Kennedy Generation

When John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960, he had the support of the majority of voters under 29. Today those same voters are in their 70s or older, and they are still the fastest-growing part of the electorate. This year, more voters will be over 65 than are ages 18 to 29. For all our obsession with Twitter, Facebook and social media, sales of hearing aids are growing faster than sales of new iPods.

Senior voters come in several different flavors. The youngest seniors, those in the baby-boom generation, split between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008. Seniors who are in their mid- to late 70s–the Silent Generation–were having kids by the 1960s and are generally more conservative; McCain won 53% of those voters, while Obama won 45%. Current polls show Mitt Romney winning this group by an even larger margin than McCain won it in 2008. The reason is clear: a recent CNN poll shows that more than half of those 65 or older say they are worse off financially than they were a year ago. Some 43% of this group believes the economy will improve only if Romney is elected. Against that, Romney’s support for the austerity budget of Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin could prove a liability with seniors if Obama can depict it as an attack on entitlements. And that could dampen Romney’s strength among seniors in Florida and Pennsylvania.

2. The Purple Nation

Polls reveal that some 40% of U.S. voters now classify themselves as independents, a record number. America is becoming a purple nation where the biggest party is no party at all. And while media outlets cater to niche audiences of partisans, more Americans have moved away from both parties. What has emerged instead is a big group of voters in the middle of the electorate that defies simple classification. Evidence suggests that while these voters have moved to the left on social issues, they lean to the right on taxing and spending. Even 41% of Democrats, according to a CNN/ORC poll, believe their taxes are too high. Above all, independents want candidates who solve problems and are willing to put aside their ideologies to get things done.

But these hard-to-peg voters are not monolithic. One group, about 60% of independents, tends to align with Ross Perot–it is virulently antigovernment and focused on waste and spending. A smaller, faster-growing group is far removed from both the old-fashioned labor politics of the Democratic Party and the evangelical politics of the Republican Party. It is proenvironment and markedly more progressive in outlook. The first group tends to be male and older and to reside in rural and suburban areas. The second, by contrast, tends to be female and is younger, urban and better educated. Romney must win the first group overwhelmingly to have a shot at the presidency. Obama must own the second and get his share of the first to win.

3. The New Professional Class

So far, the election season has been dominated by an odd discussion of manufacturing jobs at a time when all the U.S.’s job growth in the past 20 years has been in the service sector, especially among the professional class and in health care. Both candidates would be more in step with the U.S. economy if they talked more about how the growing ranks of the college educated will find good jobs and how the millions of technical-job openings could be filled rather than putting such a relentless focus on manufacturing jobs.

In 1960, only 45% of Americans who graduated from high school attended college–the focus was on getting kids to make it into and out of high school. Today more than 70% of high school seniors will attend some college. As education has surged, so have high-wage-earning households. All but unnoticed, voters from households that earn more than $100,000 jumped from just 5% of the electorate in 1988 to 26% in 2008, far outstripping the rate of inflation. And very high earners–voters who earned more than $200,000–cast 6% of the votes in the last presidential election, according to CNN exit polls.

This generation-long shift toward more education and from one- to two-paycheck households, together with the advent of jobs and professions that didn’t exist 30 years ago, has created a new professional class. This prosperous segment of the electorate drives the booming sales of smart phones and computer tablets as well as massages and exercise equipment. Working in fields such as software engineering, media and communications and consulting of all kinds, these voters bring to American politics new attitudes far removed from those of the unionized manufacturing workers or the rotary- and country-club members of the past. They support free enterprise but will also back sensible regulations on business. But these voters also believe in climate change; are pro-choice, more tolerant of gay marriage and less religious; and are often part of the global economy and the information revolution. They were split almost evenly by Obama and McCain in 2008, giving a Democrat a virtually unprecedented share of the upper-income vote. (In contrast, Reagan beat Carter by 40 points among top-5% voters, who then earned over $50,000.) Current polls show that this new professional class remains evenly split: college graduates favor Obama over Romney, while Romney edges Obama among men in these groups. The two are statistically tied among voters who make more than $100,000 a year.

4. Young and Latino

One of Obama’s big advantages in the 2008 election was the nation’s growing bloc of Hispanic voters, which broke for him by a 2-to-1 margin. Latinos now make up 16.3% of the U.S. population–about 1 in 6 Americans–and the Latino voting population has steadily increased since 1992, when it was only 2% of the electorate, to what is likely to be more than 10% of the electorate this fall. The Latino population–more than 50 million strong–is young, which means that as those voters come of age, the Democratic share of the electorate should expand. According to a recent poll, 61% of Latino voters plan to vote for Obama this fall, a drop from 2008. For a million undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, Obama is halting deportations and offering the chance to get a work permit. It was a bold stroke to shore up his Latino vote and drive a wedge between Romney and Latinos. It also put a spotlight on Republicans in Congress, who are more likely than Democrats to back stiff penalties against undocumented immigrants.

Both campaigns will pour money into Spanish-language radio and cable-television advertisements, each trying to make the other party appear hostile to Latinos. Those efforts are potentially make-or-break: while much of the Latino vote is in such solidly Democratic states as New York and California, it also constitutes double-digit percentages in other states, like New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado, where Obama hopes to pick up vital electoral votes should the big swing states of Florida and Ohio go south on him.

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