Trading places: Why Obama is unexpectedly relying more on the Rustbelt than the Sunbelt

Obama in Columbus, Ohio
Obama in Columbus, Ohio
Image: AP Photo / Haraz N. Ghanbari
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DENVER, COLORADO—As I’ve written before on Quartz, President Barack Obama is depending for re-election primarily on a “coalition of the ascendant,” composed of young people, minorities, and college-educated (and especially female) whites. In an unexpected reversal, though, as Obama struggles to repel the surging challenge from Mitt Romney, he appears to be relying less on the dynamic Sunbelt states, where this coalition is driving population growth, than on the graying industrial Rustbelt, which is less demographically favorable for him.

Although the race remains close on both fronts, Obama’s prospects today look slightly better in Midwestern Rustbelt swing states like Wisconsin, Iowa, and above all Ohio than in Southeastern and Mountain West Sunbelt states like Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Colorado. While not conceding the Sunbelt states, Obama’s campaign increasingly seems to view the three Rustbelt swing states, especially Ohio, as its castle keep: the last line of defense in its plan to reach the 270 Electoral College votes required for victory. “In some ways,” acknowledges one Democratic strategist close to the Obama campaign, “the Rustbelt states are better than they were for us four years ago and the Sunbelt states are tougher.” One measure of the shift: an NBC analysis of television advertising found that the Rustbelt contributed seven of the eight markets receiving the most spending last week, with only Denver cracking the list from the Sunbelt.

This unanticipated alignment is rooted in the contrasting economic experience and attitudes of the two regions. Those differences have created a greater receptivity in the Rustbelt for Obama’s attacks on Romney’s business experience, and in the Sunbelt for Romney’s portrayal of Obama as a big-spending government liberal.

The shifting state of the race across these two regions is exactly the opposite of what many observers expected when the presidential campaign season began. Traditionally, Rustbelt states led by Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Iowa have been the decisive tipping ground in American presidential elections. In his 2008 sweep, Obama won all of those states. But heading into 2012, they looked like a tougher bet for Obama because (except for Pennsylvania) their population is dominated by the older and blue-collar white voters who have always resisted him. Those also were precisely the groups that stampeded in the largest numbers toward the Republican Party during its landslide victory in the 2010 mid-term election.

The Sunbelt states appeared more favorable to Obama because their populations were growing thanks to the “coalition of the ascendant”. Indeed, in an interview with me after the 2010 election, David Axelrod, Obama’s senior political adviser, cited Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet’s victory that year—in which he survived a huge deficit among blue-collar white men by amassing big margins among young people, minorities and upscale whites, especially women—as the model for Obama’s own path to reelection.

Looking at the country in general, Axelrod’s assessment still holds: national polls consistently show that these are Obama’s best groups. Yet the paradox is that even as Obama is unquestionably relying on that “Colorado model” in building his overall coalition, he probably faces a greater risk today of losing Colorado and its demographic cousin Virginia, than Ohio and Wisconsin, states at the opposite end of the demographic spectrum.

When David Plouffe, the top White House political strategist, earlier this week ranked the president’s prospects in the nine most heavily contested battleground states, Nevada was the only one from the Sunbelt that made his top tier: the others were Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, and New Hampshire (which overlaps demographically, if not geographically, with the other three.) Plouffe placed the other key Sunbelt battlegrounds of Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida in a second tier of states more challenging for Obama. Meanwhile, Michigan and Pennsylvania, two other Rustbelt behemoths that Republicans once hoped to contest, appear only at the most distant edge of possibilities for Romney.

Part of this difference can be explained by economic circumstances. Until the 2008 crash, the Sunbelt states were growing much more rapidly than the Rustbelt states, both in population and employment. But with economies heavily dependent on growth itself, many states across the Sunbelt were especially burned by the housing collapse and have experienced a frustratingly slow recovery since.

Meanwhile, the uptick in manufacturing employment has generated a greater sense of revival across the Rustbelt. Today the unemployment rate in each of the four top Rustbelt battlegrounds stands at 7.3% or less, while it is running at 8% or more in all of the five top Sunbelt battlegrounds except Virginia.

But the immediate economic climate may be less important than the deeper political culture in explaining the differences in these states. Arguably the single most important factor explaining why these two bands of swing states have switched roles is that the Rustbelt has proven more receptive to Obama’s relentless effort to paint Romney as a conscienceless corporate raider for his years at Bain Capital.

Veteran Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who is advising an independent pro-Obama super PAC, says Romney has been left especially vulnerable by the region’s experience of industrial decline—of hearing managers say “these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back,” to borrow from the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen, who campaigned for Obama last week in Iowa and Ohio.

The reaction to Romney as a rich guy out for rich guys is stronger and deeper in the Rustbelt,” Garin says. “The Rustbelt narrative is about people who closed down factories and moved them some place else and it’s a story that people associate with Romney.” Largely because that argument has proved so powerful, Obama is running much better with working-class whites in Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan than elsewhere in the country—and that difference represents his margin of advantage in these critical states.

But that imagery isn’t as resonant in Sunbelt states that don’t have the same history of industrial decline (except for Southern textile mills) and whose culture, especially in the Mountain West, is shaped more by risk-taking in pursuit of the next big thing. “Look around here, everything’s new,” said Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, as he stood this week at a Romney organizing rally on the rooftop patio of a trendy bar in the shadow of Denver’s gleaming Coors Field baseball stadium. “The [Bain] attacks are a dead argument here because people have been successful by…staking out on their own and creating a craft brewery, a tech company, a small manufacturing company.”

Conversely, the Sunbelt states generally have proven more responsive to the Romney argument that Obama is an irresponsible big-spending liberal who has dangerously bloated both the national debt and Washington’s reach. The Democrats who win in these Sunbelt states tend to be cautious about pushing an activist role for government, usually narrowing their efforts to a few key priorities, like education and infrastructure, clearly tied to economic development.

On questions from health care to financial and environmental regulation, Obama has expanded government’s responsibilities more ambitiously. “In Colorado, the swing voters are skeptical of government and that’s why they find themselves wanting to vote against Obama,” says Dick Wadhams, the former chairman of the state Republican Party.

Those small-government arguments often hurt Democrats in the Midwest too, but there Obama is shielded by a specific government intervention not relevant in the Sunbelt: the popularity of the auto bailout. Romney aides privately acknowledge that the bailout, which the GOP nominee opposed, represents a major hurdle for them across the industrial Midwest.

The race looks close enough that any of the targeted Sunbelt or Rustbelt states might fall to either man. (On the list of nine targets, North Carolina is probably safest for Romney while Wisconsin and Nevada may be Obama’s best bets.) Yet in many respects the two regions have branched off into utterly distinctive contests.

In the Rustbelt, Romney is battling to undermine Obama’s improved performance among blue-collar whites. In the Sunbelt, Romney already enjoys preponderant leads among those working-class whites and the competition is centered on white-collar whites, particularly women—with Obama also facing the challenge of turning out his minority supporters. In these frenzied final days, both campaigns are now constantly adjusting the dials of their message, trying to find a frequency that will connect with the few wavering voters left in the Rustbelt and Sunbelt alike.

—National Journal researcher Stephanie Czekalinski contributed.