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Obama's still outside comfort zone of many

/ Source: National Journal

The dog days of summer are doubling as an intermission in the presidential contest.

The presidential nomination contests are over, but the general election campaign has yet to begin in earnest. The nominees are busy raising money, vetting running mates, planning for the fall campaign, and this week Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democratic nominee-in-waiting, is burnishing his foreign policy bona fides abroad.

For Sen. John McCain of Arizona, his GOP counterpart, the challenge is simply to remain in the news and not be overshadowed by the plethora of attention given to Obama's travel.

For the general election, Obama stands to benefit from what is almost certain to be a record high turnout and support among blacks. In addition, despite suggestions of a rivalry between blacks and Hispanics that might hurt him, he is running a bit ahead of the approximately 60 percent of the Hispanic vote Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., won in 2004, though the exact percentages that year are in dispute. Thus, Obama stands to do very well among minority voters.

President Lyndon Johnson was the last Democratic nominee to win a majority of the white vote, and this demographic is the thorniest for Obama. This is especially true of white voters more than 50 years of age. These voters might be the most resistant to his message of change.

Thom Riehle of RT Strategies, the polling firm that conducts surveys for The Cook Political Report, estimates that Obama needs between 40 percent and 42 percent of the white vote to win in November, and perhaps between 31 percent and 37 percent of the vote of white voters over 50 years of age, a group that has been a challenge for him.

Riehle assumes that about 14 percent of the total vote will be made up of blacks, up from about 11 percent in 2004.

He also assumes that about 11 percent of voters will be made up of other nonwhites, about the same as 2004.

A scenario that would be optimistic for Obama would give him about 92 percent of the black vote and about 60 percent of the balance of the nonwhite vote, which would give him about 19.5 percent of the total vote.

As Riehle points out, the share of votes cast by non-Hispanic whites has been consistently dropping, representing 83 percent of the total vote in 1996, 81 percent in 2000, and 77 percent in 2004.

Riehle suggests that this time around, non-Hispanic whites might make up about 75 percent of the total vote. Thus, if Obama picked up 40 percent of the total white vote, including 31 percent of the vote of whites over 50, that would represent the 30.6 percent of the total vote to get up to 50.1 percent, winning the popular vote. (Let's not worry about the Electoral College at this point.)

In a somewhat less optimistic scenario for Obama, Riehle theorizes that if Obama gets the same 92 percent of the black vote, but gets just 55 percent of the rest of the minority vote instead of 60 percent, he would need 42 percent of the non-Hispanic white vote in order to get the 31.2 percent necessary to get to 50.1 percent, including perhaps as much as 37 percent of non-Hispanic white voters over 50. Whew.

At this point, these numbers are within reach for Obama, but he hasn't yet closed the sale. While these older white voters are more open to change than usual and are less hostile to the notion of voting Democratic than they often have in the past, they haven't yet reached that comfort level with Obama.

They haven't decided to oppose him, but there is some hesitancy about casting their vote for him. That's what this campaign will be about.

Will Obama be able to establish a connection with enough of these voters to get over the top or will he come up short? The higher proportion of black voters lowers the bar a bit, but will it be enough?

That's why this election has in some ways come to resemble the 1980 race between then-President Jimmy Carter and former California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

In much the same way that voters are demanding change and are angry at the GOP and President Bush today, they were upset with Carter and wanted change in 1980.

Although President Bush isn't up for re-election this year, voters want him out in much the same way they wanted Carter out 28 years ago.

But there were reservations about Reagan, who had no Washington or foreign policy experience. Today, there is a feeling that Obama seems very bright and capable, but his national and foreign policy credentials are still relatively thin.

Reagan had problems crossing that threshold of comfort with voters to the point that the race heading into the home stretch was too close to call.

In the only debate that year, held Oct. 28 in Cleveland, the former California governor came across just as presidential, if not more so, than President Carter.

Having crossed that threshold, Reagan was able to harness that pro-change and anti-Democratic party sentiment over the weekend before the election into what turned out to be a rout, winning 51 percent to 41 percent.

If Obama clearly crosses that threshold, he not only wins, but wins big.

But if it is a close call, this election can easily go to the wire and go either way.

His trip to Iraq and Afghanistan might help some voters to visualize him as president, which is what needs to happen for them to reach that comfort zone with him.