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For Obama, which yardstick?

For now, Barack Obama needs to shore up support among college-educated white voters, not blue-collar Democrats.
/ Source: National Journal

In the aftermath of Barack Obama's speech this week on race, pundits have focused with surprising unanimity on the question of whether the speech would be persuasive to blue-collar Democrats. ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, for example, said that while the speech "reassured Barack Obama's liberal supporters, it was a harder sell to win over the white working-class voters who have been pretty resistant to Obama all through this process."

Is that the right yardstick? Thinking about what Obama needs to accomplish and when, I am not sure that it is.

In his battle to lock down the Democratic nomination, Obama's more urgent need may be to shore up his support among college-educated white voters. His support from this group deteriorated in both Ohio (just before the primary) and in Pennsylvania (over the last month). Polls of likely Democratic primary voters by both Quinnipiac University and ABC News/Washington Post had Obama leading Hillary Rodham Clinton among Ohio's college-educated white voters by roughly 10 points in mid-February. That advantage disappeared in Quinnipiac's final Ohio poll two weeks later, which showed Obama losing college-educated whites to Clinton by 6 percentage points (44 percent to 50 percent), roughly the same margin as in the exit poll (45 percent to 52 percent) a few days later.

Quinnipiac has tracked a similar trend among Pennsylvania's likely Democratic electorate. In late February, Obama had a 4-point advantage among college-educated whites. Its most recent survey, conducted just last week, showed a reversal: Clinton led by 7 points (51 percent to 44 percent) among college-educated white voters. At the same time, Obama's support among non-college white voters in Pennsylvania dropped by only 2 percentage points (from 30 percent to 28 percent).

Now obviously, we do not yet know how Obama's speech will impact these preferences, but how he ultimately fares among Pennsylvania's college-educated Democrats could well determine whether he loses Pennsylvania narrowly (as his campaign forecast in early February) or by a double-digit margin. If, hypothetically, Obama wins his usual overwhelming majority among Pennsylvania's black Democrats, and Clinton racks up the same 40-point margin among non-college whites that she did in Ohio, Obama can still run within 10 points overall if he can best Clinton by at least 4 points among college-educated white voters.

The larger and more significant issue is whether Obama has a problem with blue-collar Democrats in the general election, and whether this week's speech will "work" to repair it.

Here the survey evidence is mixed and very preliminary. At the moment, both Clinton and Obama appear to fare equally well against John McCain. National surveys conducted over the last two weeks show differences of only a percentage point or two comparing matchups of Obama vs. McCain and Clinton vs. McCain. Neither Democratic candidate has demonstrated a consistent advantage on the last round of surveys.

A survey conducted in late February by the Pew Research Center shows nearly perfectly offsetting "defections" from both Democrats when pitted against McCain. In other words, while Clinton and Obama both received 50 percent of the vote against McCain, their coalitions differed slightly, with roughly 8 percent supporting Clinton but not Obama, and 8 percent supporting Obama but not Clinton.

The Pew Center's report also shows that the Clinton-only voters tend to be white, older, lower-income and without a college degree. How hard would it be for Obama to win these voters back? The evidence on that score is mixed. Negative assessments of Obama appear to drive their defection: Seventy percent reported an unfavorable impression of Obama; 35 percent reported a "very unfavorable" impression.

On the other hand, nearly three out of four Clinton-only voters identified as Democrats (compared with 55 percent of the Obama-only voters), and the same number also disapproved of the job President Bush is doing (73 percent) and said the U.S. made the wrong decision to use military force against Iraq (71 percent). So a unified Democratic Party with Obama at the helm may be well-positioned to win these voters back.

Can one speech move them? Probably not, but should Obama win the Democratic nomination, he will have the rest of the campaign, a vice presidential selection, a convention speech and (presumably) at least three debates to continue the conversation.

Thanks to Doug Schwartz of the Quinnipiac University Poll and Scott Keeter of the Pew Research Center for sharing the data cited in this column.