Salena Zito

When Carolyn Coulson was deciding how to vote in 2008, she found Barack Obama’s rhetoric “exciting,” especially when he talked about a “different kind of politics.”

Then a student at Vanderbilt, she said John McCain was dull in comparison.

Coulson, now 25 and a Wall Street consultant, finds no trace of that Obama today.

“His rhetoric is aimed just at specific groups of people, not as someone who would bring the country together,” she said.

Identity politics is something you do when you don't have the worst economy since World War II, according to David Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor. “He cannot say anything about the economy and win,” Woodard explained.

From his mini-amnesty pitch to Hispanics, his support of gay marriage and his “identity” comments on the death of a black youth, to his turning contraception into a wedge issue, President Obama is shaping his electoral path to victory with identity politics.

After the 2008 election, he began losing white voters almost immediately. That began with stimulus spending, escalated with the health-care vote, and was cemented by a series of speeches and seemingly inconsequential decisions, such as getting involved in the goings-on of a Massachusetts police department that led to an awkward “beer summit.”

White voters make up a majority of the electoral pie, and white Democrats in the middle- to low-income working class are the soul of that coalition. In 2008, white voters without college degrees made up nearly 40 percent of all voters.

In the 2010 midterm election, when Republicans crushed Democrats up and down the ballot nationally, less than 33 percent of the white working class voted for House Democrats – a record low.

The latest Gallup in-depth poll shows only 43 percent of white 18- to 29-year-olds plan to vote for Obama, down 9 points from the 52 percent backing him in 2008; his support is down 9 points among postgraduate women, too.

Despite Coulson’s education, profession and gender, she is as yet unmoved by Obama despite being a clear target of his identity politics.

Those numbers are why you must picture Obama's strategy as creating a majority coalition of "hyphens" (African-American, Mexican-American, gay/lesbian-Americans, etc.), said Eldon Eisenach, a Tulsa University political science professor.

“Recalling Teddy Roosevelt's rejection of ‘hyphenated Americans’ and his call for national citizenship, one might add that hyphens can't govern … in the national interest,” Eisenach added.

Obama’s campaign talks about “winning the future” because that is what he is trying to do politically, according to Baylor University political scientist Curt Nichols: “Demonstrate for Democrats a new path to political power, one that disregards traditional Democrats in favor of a coalition focused on women, blacks, Hispanics and gays.”

Two weeks ago, when the Supreme Court upheld the health-care law, one thing missing in the noise following the news was the sudden intensity within the conservative base. Before that moment, Republican Mitt Romney was on the brink of being forced to counter Obama by mirroring his identity politics and juicing up Romney’s own base.

“Oh, that is already done for him with this ruling,” said Democrat strategist Dane Strother. “This hands Romney an intensity level that no one predicted he might achieve.”

Couple that with independent voters souring on Obama over the economy, and this is the perfect storm for Romney, said Bruce Haynes, a Washington-based GOP media consultant.

Obama already has lost the white working class and rural votes; both only needed to be convinced to come out and vote for Romney – and the Supreme Court gave them that reason.

Obama's support among suburbanites in places such as Philadelphia is tenuous at best, too. If northern suburbanites and young professionals turn, then he is doomed to a huge loss. And persuadable voters such as Coulson are looking for a compelling reason to abandon him; divisive rhetoric is turning them off, and economics is only half the story.

If Romney can reassure suburbanites that America is exceptional because it doesn't vote for or against anyone based on skin color, ethnic heritage or religion – that it votes based on a candidate’s principles, priorities and performance – then he has a chance to undermine Obama with northern suburbanites and to rout him in a landslide.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.