Shifting Coalitions

Much of the non-opinion buzz today about Obama’s same-sex marriage statement involves in-the-weeds semi-gossip about the effect of Joe Biden’s casual comments on the subject in terms of the timing of the president’s move–in other words, the kind of thing that will only matter for more than a few days to the people writing the next Game Change.

But as usual, National Journal‘s Ron Brownstein has a deeper take about the strategic significance of this moment:

Obama’s announcement might not significantly change the overall level of his 2012 support, especially in an election where economic issues will dominate. But the announcement may reflect the Obama camp’s thinking about the likely composition of his support. It shows the president, however reluctantly, formulating an agenda that implicitly acknowledges the party is unlikely to recreate the support it attracted from the white working-class and senior voters who anchored Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition. Instead, the announcement shows him reaching out to mobilize the new pillars of the Democratic electorate, particularly younger people and socially liberal white collar whites.

“It was crystal clear that he didn’t want to get off the fence on this issue before the election if he could possibly avoid it; this is not a bright line he wants to draw,” said long-term Democratic strategist Bill Galston, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “He realizes it intensifies the divide between what might be called the emerging Democratic coalition and the pieces of the old coalition that he wanted to retain. But things had gotten to a point where he felt he had no choice.”

Again quoting Galston, Brownstein goes on to suggest Team Obama is making an implicit choice between what many have called the “Colorado” model for winning a close election and the older “Ohio” model: the first focused on expanding the Democratic coalition into newly receptive (and growing) audiences, the latter on recapturing lost fragments of the New Deal coalition. As always, this kind of shorthand risks oversimplification and even false choices; I hardly think the Obama campaign is conceding the entire Rust Belt by endorsing same-sex marriage, given the rich opportunities Romney is offering in places like Ohio by promoting an agenda of upper-end tax cuts and deregulation complimented by decimation of the social safety net and demonization of unions.

But it’s true Obama’s move reflects an adjustment to new coalitions if not a choice of two mutually exclusive paths to a majority. As Brownstein suggests:

[H]istorians may someday view Obama’s announcement Wednesday as a milestone in the evolution of his party’s political strategy, because it shows the president and his campaign team are increasingly comfortable responding to the actual coalition that elects Democrats today-not the one that many in the party remember from their youth.

Yep, that makes a lot of sense. But it’s also important to remember that electoral coalitions are not based on “winning” this or that demographic, but on putting together a majority of the vote from very different parts of the electorate. Ultimately a vote’s a vote, and sometimes you can win overall simply by “losing” a category of voters by less of a margin than might otherwise be the case. That’s what makes campaigns so complicated, and why any strategic shift can look brilliant or foolish in the rear-view window.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.