Sunday, June 24, 2012 | 2 a.m.
The demographic battle lines of the 2012 campaign are rapidly solidifying as Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama gear up for a campaign defined by significant gaps between the candidates in voters’ race, gender and age.
A trickle of recent swing-state surveys confirms a racial divide that’s been on vivid display in national polling: Obama has failed to gain new traction with white voters while Romney has either stalled out or lost ground with Latinos and other non-white voting groups.
That pattern is only likely to intensify after Obama’s decision to allow some children of illegal immigrants to stay in the country. Romney criticized it for being a stop-gap measure but has not said whether he would maintain that policy as president.
It’s not only race that divides the two candidates: The generational and gender gaps that have characterized both the Obama and Romney coalitions haven’t budged. The racial gap may be the most striking, given the rapidly growing Hispanic population and the relative decline of the white vote share.
A Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters last week threw the divisions into relief. In the poll, Romney won voters over 55, white voters and men. All other demographic groups broke for the president: women, black and Latino voters, and voters 54 and younger.
The survey gave Obama a 4-point lead against Romney overall, 46 to 42 percent.
Romney addressed the National Association of Latino Elected Officials in Orlando on Thursday, giving his lengthiest sales pitch in months to Latino voters and outlining his views on immigration in greater depth.
Beyond a handful of details — he wants to allocate green cards to keep families together and make it easier for veterans to become citizens — Romney hewed closely to a vague promise of a “long-term solution” on immigration.
“Unfortunately, despite his promises, President Obama has failed to address immigration reform,” Romney declared in prepared remarks, saying this of Obama’s new deportation policy: “Some people have asked if I will let stand the president’s executive action. The answer is that I will put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president’s temporary measure.”
Republicans hope to regain some ground among Latinos with the same narrowly focused economic message Romney has been deploying across the country.
Before the group on Friday, President Barack Obama bashed Republicans for blocking immigration reform.
One week after announcing he would stop deporting many young undocumented immigrants, Obama said that change is just the beginning of his work on immigration and called on Congress to find a permanent, bipartisan solution to fix the broken immigration system.
“We should have passed the Dream Act a long time ago; it was written by members of both parties,” Obama said. “The bill hadn’t changed. The need hadn’t changed,” Obama said. “The only thing that had changed was politics. And I refused to keep looking young people in the eye, deserving young people in the eye and tell them, ‘Tough luck, the politics is too hard.’ ”
But Thursday’s Quinnipiac survey is significant not just because of what it says about the Florida race — polls there have seesawed in recent weeks between Obama and Romney — but also that it mirrors the dynamics of the national race. In many places, Romney appears to have locked in a lead with white voters and Obama continues to hold an overwhelming advantage with non-whites.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll of Latino voters found at the end of May that Obama had a 34-point national lead over Romney, and the president has consistently outperformed Romney with women and younger voters. At the same time, Gallup found this month what it called “cracks” in Obama’s white support: a decrease of 6 points in white support since the 2008 campaign.
The race gap is especially crucial in states such as Nevada and Colorado — relatively new swing states where the president’s dominance among Latino voters has made it difficult for Romney to break through.
The Democratic automated-polling firm Public Policy Polling conducted recent surveys in both states, finding that Obama’s lead over Romney has diminished but that his strong support among non-whites is keeping him ahead.
“What we’re seeing in most of our polls is that Obama’s doing about as well as he did with blacks and Hispanics as in 2008 and that they’re likely to comprise a similar share of the electorate,” PPP’s Tom Jensen said in an email. “That means for Romney to win he needs to take white voters by 10 points more than John McCain did in 2008. Right now he’s nowhere close to doing that.”
Jensen suggested that there’s still room for Romney to move up among white voters who are “open to voting against Obama, but they’re not really sold on Romney.”
“I think the climate’s right for Romney to get where he needs to be with white voters. He just still has a lot of work to do to convince folks unhappy with Obama that he would indeed be a better choice,” he said.
A Republican strategist familiar with 2012 polling said Romney’s demographic limits are clear but that there’s still plenty of room for an electoral majority within those parameters.
“I don’t recall any non-white, non-old, non-men demographic he’s doing great with. Then again, white people are most of the electorate, and men are nearly half and old people are 20 percent,” the Republican said.
The Colorado and Nevada demographic breakdowns are, if anything, even starker than Florida’s. In Nevada, PPP found Obama ahead of Romney by 6 points overall, despite losing white voters and men by 4 percent, and trailing among voters over 65 by 14 percent.
Obama was winning Hispanics in Nevada by 13 percent, blacks by 40 percent, women by 13 percent and all age groups under 65.
In Colorado, the race was essentially tied among men and whites while Romney continued to hold a strong, 14-point lead among senior citizens. Obama was ahead among Hispanics by 27 points, women by 14 points and all other age groups, adding up to a 7-point lead overall.
None of that means that Romney can’t win those states, or for that matter, assemble a winning collection of swing states where Latinos and blacks are less influential.
It does mean, however, that for every incremental increase in Obama’s young, non-white and female support, Romney needs to expand his support among whites, men and seniors correspondingly — or find a way to make inroads into Obama’s gains.
And the path to victory with a white-heavy base is smaller than it once was. Republican strategist Mike Murphy tweeted Wednesday that if Obama wins Colorado, Nevada and less-diverse New Hampshire, and Romney wins Ohio, Virginia, Florida and North Carolina, the two candidates will be tied at 266 electoral votes, with Iowa and its seven electoral votes as the tiebreaker.
Thanks to the stagnant economy, Romney may well be able to thread that electoral needle — in fact, many Republicans are increasingly optimistic that he’ll be able to do just that.