Each key voting bloc seen as complex, multifaceted
By Salena Zito
Published: Saturday, May 5, 2012, 7:52 p.m.
Rhetoric, gimmicks, gritty backdrops for speeches and stinging criticism for an opponent's gaffes: These can help win a presidential election.
So, too, can winning the support of specific voting blocs. From now until November, President Obama and Mitt Romney, the Republican Party's de facto nominee, will work to secure support from blacks, Hispanics, independents, women and young people.
Each of these subsets of the population is complex and multifaceted, with wide-ranging positions on social and fiscal issues. The Tribune-Review asked several strategists to gauge their political preferences as a whole:
The black vote
Black voters are a mainstay of the Democratic Party in modern politics, said Steffen Schmidt, political science professor at Iowa State University.
"Obama not only electrified blacks in 2008, but they turned out in record numbers for the first black president in history," he said.
Yet Obama has lost favor with some black voters, Schmidt said, citing "a precipitous drop in the number of blacks with a 'strongly favorable' view of the president," from 83 percent last year to 58 percent in recent polling.
Republicans in general, and Romney in particular, have difficulty in gaining support from black voters. "Obama needs to reboot the enthusiasm of four years ago and work very hard with black leaders to generate another record turnout for him," Schmidt said.
The Hispanic vote
Politicians view Hispanics as reliable Democratic voters, but that's only partially true, said Catherine Wilson, a Villanova University expert on Hispanic and female voters.
"The Latino population straddles two political camps," she said. "They tend to embrace socially conservative views. At the same time, they adhere to more fiscally liberal political views."
Among Hispanics, ethnicity and religion can distinguish voting patterns, Wilson said. Cuban Americans and evangelical Protestant Latinos, for example, more often choose Republican candidates, she said. Exit polling by the Pew Hispanic Center in 2010 elections found Latinos rank education as their top concern, followed by jobs, health care and the federal deficit.
Wilson said the candidates should push Congress to pass the DREAM Act, a bill that would help children of illegal immigrants obtain citizenship. Obama did so at a Cinco de Mayo event at the White House, and Romney's endorsement of the act would signify that immigration reform is coming, she said.
"This simple action could reignite Hispanic support for the Republican ticket after the most impressive capture of the vote (44 percent) by President George W. Bush in 2004."
The independent vote
Muhlenberg College political scientist Chris Borick said this voting bloc is "the Holy Grail of American electoral politics."
"Candidates spend enormous time and treasure seeking out and appealing to a cohort of voters that remain separate of the trappings of partisan politics," he said.
Independents this year are primed to play a pivotal role in determining the election, Borick said.
"Registration statistics and polling data have shown the number of independents in the United States continues to increase, with millions of voters abandoning their party affiliations and declaring themselves political free agents," he said.
Independents helped elect Democrats to Congress in 2006 and helped put Obama in office, he said.
"Many of these same voters ... turned to the GOP in the 2010 elections and remain unsold on the president with six months remaining to Election Day," Borick said. That means both candidates will campaign hard for the independent vote, though it's unclear "what pitch will work on a group that has little good will for the traditional partisan approaches to politics."
Alex Castellanos, a Republican analyst for CNN, said independents decide elections, giving them a reputation as profound thinkers who carefully weigh the fate of the country.
"They are just the opposite," he said. "In fact, they are the least interested and informed of all voters. They don't know what they think, they don't know what they believe, and they don't pay attention, and that's why they are swing voters."
Early polling indicates independents prefer Romney to Obama, Castellanos said.
"So what does the president do when he can't win independents in the middle? He shrinks the middle. He does that by polarizing the country until there is no middle left: rich versus poor, men versus women, employer versus employee." That strategy, he said, "just might work."
The female vote
Neither party should take female voters for granted, said Wilson of Villanova.
"Even while women tend to identify more with the Democratic ticket, there is evidence of increasing diversification in the women's vote as a whole," she said.
Statistics show women tended to vote for Democrats from 1980 until 2010, when they voted in larger numbers for Republicans, Wilson said. And, women comprise 46 percent of independents.
Surveys show women care about issues related to jobs, education and the economy. Surprisingly, on polarizing political issues such as abortion, female voter preferences reflect those of males, she said. The real gender gap is most evident in women's support for a social safety net for the elderly, children and the poor.
To win over women, Obama and Romney should "stress how their candidacies would allow for increasing economic opportunity for women and their families," she said.
"Romney will need to make a concerted effort to win over those female voters who naturally gravitate to the Democratic Party -- those between the ages of 18 to 49, nonwhite female voters and white college graduates, and those female voters who attend church less frequently," Wilson said. "He can do this most effectively by tailoring his platform to their key interests and by avoiding the use of overt religious language."
The youth vote
In terms of electoral math, 18- to 29-year-olds are the least important demographic, said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst with the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"The group makes up the smallest share of the electorate every election and turns out at the lowest level," he said.
In 2008, exit polling showed young voters made up 18 percent of voters. Data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement found that year, 51 percent of people ages 18 to 29 voted, compared with 67 percent of voters 30 and older.
"Yet young voters proved in 2008 that they can matter," Skelley said, noting that Obama beat Sen. John McCain of Arizona, 66 percent to 32 percent, among 18- to 29-year-olds. "When a margin is that significant, it can have an impact. Had McCain split the 18-29 vote evenly, he probably would have lost the national popular vote very narrowly rather than by 7 percentage points."
The 2008 election might be the only presidential race since 1972 in which young voters overwhelmingly backed one candidate over the other, he said. According to Skelley, Obama's edge among young people was the largest for that demographic since Bill Clinton's in 1996.
Obama likely will win among young voters again, Skelley said, but he thinks Romney could cut into Obama's lead by emphasizing his ability to fix the economy. A February report from Pew Research Center found that only 54 percent of Americans between 18 and 24 are employed, and many young people have student loan debts.
"The economic morass has disproportionately harmed young people," Skelley said.
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