WASHINGTON — There are two majorities in the country right now. One disapproves of President Obama. The other is still inclined to vote Democratic. The key question for the 2014 elections is whether voting this fall — and Obama’s approval ratings — can come into line with the electorate’s broader Democratic leanings?
There is also this: Obama’s difficulties do not appear to be hurting Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency in 2016.
These are the findings just below the surface of the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll released last week. Obama’s approval rating in the survey was just 41 percent, both with the general public and among registered voters. But in a hypothetical matchup with Jeb Bush for the 2016 presidential race, Clinton was favored by 53 percent of registered voters, Bush by 41 percent.
The roughly one-eighth of voters who disapprove of Obama but nonetheless support Clinton for 2016 may be the most important group in the electorate. If Democratic candidates can collectively manage to corral Clinton’s share of the national electorate this fall, the party would likely keep control of the Senate and might take over the House of Representatives. The latter outcome is now seen (even by most Democrats) as a virtual impossibility. These Hillary Difference Voters, as we’ll call them, could find themselves the most courted contingent in this year’s contests.
Who are they? A comparison of those who back Clinton but disapprove of Obama with the group that is both pro-Clinton and pro-Obama suggests that the swing constituency is much more likely to be blue-collar and white — 71 percent of the mixed group are white, compared with only 57 percent of the pro-Obama, pro-Clinton group, and it is also somewhat more Latino. Whites without college degrees constitute 47 percent of the Hillary Difference Voters but only 30 percent of the pro-Clinton, pro-Obama group. In keeping with this, 62 percent of the Hillary Difference Voters have incomes of less than $50,000 annually.
Ideologically, the swing group includes significantly fewer self-described liberals. Among the Hillary Difference Voters, only 29 percent call themselves liberal; among those who both favor Clinton and approve of Obama, 43 percent are liberals. Nearly a third of the mixed group are white evangelical Protestants, compared with only 10 percent of those who react positively to both Democrats. Clinton also runs ahead of Obama’s approval rating among voters aged 30 to 49, among white Southerners, and among independents, including those who say they lean Republican.
Interestingly, while the swing group is 63 percent female — yes, Clinton does have particular appeal to women — this is not hugely different from the pro-Clinton, pro-Obama group, 59 percent of whom are female. Both numbers show how important women have become to the Democratic coalition.
As for the fall elections, the poll found that overall, 45 percent said they would vote for the Democratic candidate in their congressional district, while 44 percent said they would vote for the Republican. Not surprisingly, Democrats win the pro-Obama, pro-Clinton group overwhelmingly, 86 percent to 7 percent. But the Hillary Difference Voters split only 56 percent Democratic, with 26 percent choosing the Republican, and most of the rest still undecided. Again, this is the group in which Democratic support has room to grow. (Thanks to Peyton Craighill, The Washington Post’s polling manager, for pulling together these numbers.)
The findings call into question easy comparisons of Clinton’s establishment standing with the populist appeal of Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat whose new book A Fighting Chance is becoming a bible for the party’s economic liberals.
While Hillary Clinton, like her husband, can reach moderate voters — thus her popularity among non-liberals — the contours of the Hillary Difference constituency are decidedly populist. The voters Obama and the Democrats need to re-engage are a less affluent, non-elite group for whom the economy is the central concern. In their different ways, both Clinton and Warren may end up pointing the party and the president in the same direction.
This is why Friday’s very encouraging jobs report was about the best sort of news Obama could get. It’s also why he has been spending a lot of time talking about the minimum wage — and why Bill Clinton gave a stemwinder last week touting his own economic record as president. The swing voters this year are motivated by economic discontent. They don’t trust the Republicans but aren’t happy with the Democrats. Hillary Clinton has many of them. Obama needs them to come back his way.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne.
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