Obama in 2010: Just What Is His Base?

BY dchinni  August 20, 2010 at 1:36 PM EDT

President Barack Obama waves to a Kansas City crowd; White House Photo by Pete SouzaWhen Barack Obama won the White House, a running theme among the press was how tactically smart the Obama team was in everything from their use of the Web to their ability to see the long-term and not sweat the small stuff. However, the last few weeks have been full of perceived gaffes that have many in Washington stumped.

Political experts have decried the White House’s stepping into the New York mosque fight and the First Lady and Sasha’s trip to Spain. But the move that may have raised the most eyebrows was White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ attack of what he called the “professional left.” In an interview with The Hill, Gibbs let loose on the political left saying, in one of the chat’s highlights, “They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.”

The move was criticized because midterm elections are usually seen as a poor time to rile the party base. Turnout numbers are generally down in such years, leaving more enthusiastic voters — i.e. base voters — a more prominent role.

So why beat up the Democratic base? Looking at the election through Patchwork Nation, maybe there is a difference of opinion in what 2010 election is about — or about what the Obama base actually is.

Back in 2008

President Obama’s 2008 win was a fairly broad-based one. Yes, he did well in county types where one would expect him to do well – he got 68 percent of the vote in the big city Industrial Metropolis counties and 58 percent in the collegiate Campus and Careers counties. But he did especially well in the swing-voting, largely suburban Monied ‘Burb counties.

He took more than 55 percent of the vote in those locales and won them by some 12 percentage points. Four years before, Sen. John Kerry won those same counties by less than 2 percent.

The burbs are critical to understanding the Obama administration for two reasons.

First, in the simplest terms, they matter a lot. They hold some 69 million people and they are big parts of some key states on the electoral map: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Michigan, Colorado.

It is no secret that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was extraordinarily focused on the suburbs as the key to Democratic success in 2006 and 2008.

Second, the voters in them tend to be less ideological. While all of Patchwork Nation’s county types are geographic areas aggregated into larger groups (meaning there are obviously pockets that deviate from the profile) the Monied ‘Burbs hold more voters that go into the election season unsure of which way to vote. There are fewer traditional “base” voters for both parties.

And in 2008, the burbs seemed to swing heaviest to Obama that fall when the economy collapsed.

How does that all fit into 2010? Despite the tough times nationally, the Monied Burbs have been pretty resilient in their support of Obama. The latest Pew Research Center data from late June showed the burbs still supported Obama overall, giving him a 52 percent approval rating. That number mirrored the 52 percent approval rating from Campus and Careers. Only the Industrial Metros gave him a higher number, 65 percent.

The burbs, in other words, have been good to Obama.

Congress or the White House?

Still, does it make sense to seek the support of those more moderate voters in a midterm year? It probably does since elections are never simply about just wooing the middle or energizing the base. It is always a bit of both.

In part, the Obama team is calculating that the actions and words of the more conservative elements of the GOP — consider the tea party movement — will go a long way in stoking the fires of Democratic base. Meanwhile some of the Republicans’ more incendiary candidates, will turn off moderate voters. Already, in Nevada, Sharron Angle has turned out to be lightning rod that has dramatically increased the chances that the embattled and unpopular Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid might eke out a re-election victory.

Democrats are also proactively trying to recreate some of the 2008 Obama campaign magic by pouring $30 million into an effort to reconnect with those first-time voters (many of them young and minority voters) and get them to the polls even if the name Obama does not appear atop the ballot.

There was also some speculation surrounding Gibbs’ comments that the Obama team is thinking less about 2010 as much as it is aiming at keeping those moderate Monied Burb voters in the fold for 2012. Voters in suburban Philadelphia and Cleveland and Detroit and Denver will be key to the administration’s re-election hopes.

And despite all the talk of “what was the strategy” and even this analysis, there is at least one other possibility. It could be that Gibbs’ words came from frustration and reflected his actual thoughts. In fact, that may be the most likely explanation.

That does still happen in Washington on occasion.