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Ohio Vs. Virginia: A False Choice?

Earlier this month, after Ohio voters roundly rejected Gov. John Kasich's attempt to eviscerate public employee unions, I mused on the result's implications for the Obama re-election campaign. Despite signalling their intent to hang onto the 2008 pickups of Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado -- home of disproportionate numbers of minority and young voters and college-educated professionals -- would the Obama team actually be better off focusing on holding onto blue-collar voters in the Rust Belt, and Ohio in particular?

In the weeks since, a healthy debate has sprung up on this front. On the one hand are the likes of Bill Galston, arguing that the Democrats would be better off taking the more traditional route to an electoral map majority, by focusing on Ohio and the broad middle of the electorate it represents, and not placing undue hopes in turning out outsized numbers of young or minority voters in the newly en-purpled states.  On the other hand, are the likes of Ruy Teixeira, who argue that Obama is justified in placing hope in young and minority voters because the growth of those groups is a demographic fact. This does not, however, lead Teixeira to argue that Obama should zero in on Virginia, Colorado and North Carolina at the expense of Ohio; rather, Teixeira argues that Ohio versus Virginia is a false choice, and that a forthright, populist-tinged message will appeal to suburban independents in Raleigh, Norfolk or Denver about as much as it will appeal to the Ohio working class.

Teixeira expands on his case in a new 68-page paper co-authored by John Halpin of the Center for American Progress. If you're not up for the full paper, I recommend Mike Tomasky's very good distillation of it. Meanwhile, there's a new clue today to how the Obama team is actually thinking about this, in the form of recent remarks by campaign manager Jim Messina. Messina tells ABC News that, on the one hand, the campaign is very heartened by the Ohio outcome and the backlash underway in Wisconsin against Gov. Scott Walker, and is taking from that the Midwest could be stronger territory for the Democrats than previously thought. But, appearing to follow Teixeira, Messina argues that a Rust Belt and purple-state focus are not mutually exclusive, going so far as to say that the campaign was going to make a play for Arizona this time around.

That is the upbeat case for Obama's refusing to choose between working class white voters and an upscale/minority coalition. The less upbeat version of the case can be stated in one word: Pennsylvania. The Keystone state has plenty of both types of voters and right now it's not looking so good for Obama. A new PPP survey has him tied with Romney in the state, despite having won it easily in 2008. (Notably, his 10-point win in the state came despite a particularly poor showing among the state's working class whites -- whereas non-college educated white voters actually voted for him in higher numbers in Michigan and Iowa than did college-educated whites in those states, Obama got wiped out among non-college educated whites in Pennsylvania.) Obama pretty much has to win Pennsylvania, and it seems clear that the way to do so is to follow the advice of Teixeira -- drive up turnout as much as possible among the young voters, minorities and highly educated types in and around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh while doing everything possible to hold his own among the working class in the rest of the state. Either/or won't suffice.

A final thought: another reason for avoiding a stark apposition of strategies is to spare the sort of confused punditry found in last week's Economist. Under the headline "The elusive progressive majority," the magazine's Lexington column takes Galston's side in arguing for a more conventional, Ohio-centric approach. But it confuses the matter by linking Obama's more populist turn of late -- a turn the magazine deplores -- with the goal of pursuing a coalition of younger, minority and college-educated voters. In fact, it is just as plausible that Obama's more forceful tone is an attempt to regain standing among the working-class Ohioans who have turned against Kasich. Or, as Teixeira would argue, it's a tone that could apply across the board, beyond the facile divisions that political reporters (myself included) ought to be more careful about making.