WASHINGTON — Near the midpoint of his presidency, Barack Obama’s diverse voter coalition reveals giant cracks and he faces major work repairing his standing among independents in states crucial to his re-election chances.
Catholics. Older people. Women. Young adults. They shifted toward Republicans in this month’s elections and failed to support Obama’s Democratic Party as they did in 2008.
Two years before voters render judgment on his tenure, Obama’s most critical task may be winning back those who aren’t affiliated with a party but who hold enormous sway in close contests. National exit polls from the midterm elections show these voters broke heavily for Republicans after helping elect Obama and Democrats in the two previous elections.
The trouble with this constituency appears even deeper for Obama in places expected to be closely contested in the next White House race, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of exit polls in 26 states. It shows just how much ground Obama must make up with independents between now and November 2012.
“Over the last two years, we’ve made progress. But clearly too many Americans haven’t felt that progress yet,” he said after the election. “As president, I take responsibility for that.”
It’s impossible to predict a presidential election based on midterm results. That’s even truer considering that 131.2 million people voted in 2008, when Obama was elected, compared with 87 million this month, based on an AP tally of official and unofficial results. The slow-moving economic recovery could speed up, lifting Obama and the Democrats.
November’s exit-poll responses provide enough hints that Obama could be in serious trouble if he doesn’t shore up his support in crucial areas.
“I’m not going to lie to you, I’m frustrated and I blamed him for some of the bad shape this country’s in. We’re struggling,” said Earlene Durham, 32, of St. Louis, sounding like other independents who backed Obama in 2008. “But then I thought, ‘Well, he’s trying the best he can.’ The only thing we can do is wait and see what he does in the next two years. Gotta give the man a chance.”
Exit-poll questionnaires vary state to state, but on several issues that dominated the campaign this year, cross-state analyses are possible.
His job performance rating was more negative than positive among voters in states such as Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Obama won them all in 2008. In Indiana, where Obama was the first Democrat to win the state since 1964, just 37 percent approved.
Among independents: — More said their vote in a Senate race was to express opposition to Obama rather than to show support. This was true in every state where exit polls asked the question, and by margins of 2-to-1 or better in states such as Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
— Majorities disapprove of Obama in all states but California, Delaware, Hawaii and Vermont, which traditionally lean Democratic during a presidential election. Obama’s job performance rating is lowest in West Virginia, where 76 percent disapprove. In Indiana, 69 percent of independents disapprove, and in perennially contested Ohio, 65 percent disapprove.
— Most express broad dissatisfaction with how the federal government is working. Roughly four in 10 are angry in Colorado and Missouri, while about one-third feel that way in Indiana, Ohio, Washington state, New Hampshire, Nevada, Wisconsin, Florida and Pennsylvania.
— A chunk said they want the government to do less after two years of Democratic domination in the nation’s capital. That’s almost a direct reversal of how this voting group behaved in 2008. Majorities of independents in each state surveyed except Democratic-leaning Hawaii said the government is doing too many things better left to the private sector and individuals.
— Supporters outnumber opponents of the tea party coalition in all but Delaware, Hawaii and Vermont. In Missouri, half of independents call themselves Tea Party backers, compared with 18 percent who oppose it. Nearly half of independents support the movement in 2008 swing states Colorado, Indiana and Ohio.
— More than half say their financial situations got worse in the past two years in Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio and Wisconsin. One in seven or less across the states said their financial fortunes have improved during Obama’s time in office.
— About four in 10 in six states — Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas — said the $814 billion economic stimulus package hurt the economy. At least half want the health care bill repealed in 20 of 24 states where the question was asked. The exceptions were California, Delaware, Hawaii and Vermont.
“I’m very disappointed,” said independent Kris Rickert, 36, of Dousman, Wis., pointing to the skyrocketing national debt. “I understand his philosophy was trying to get the economy going, but I just don’t think that’s the right way of going about it.”
After the election, Obama acknowledged that he’s “paying a political price” for failing to make good on his promises to change the way Washington works and slipping in his pledge to “maintain the kind of tone that says we can disagree without being disagreeable.”
Over the next two years, a divided government — with Republicans in control of the House and Democrats with a slim majority in the Senate — may give Obama more of an opportunity to shift his policies to the center and again woo independents, by compromising with the GOP. Yet, there’s no certainty that will happen; both Obama and House Speaker-in-waiting John Boehner, R-Ohio, have suggested they’re willing to compromise but only to a point.
Still, making an effort to change the ways of Washington could score him points with some independents.
“He is a progressive president, but he just doesn’t have the chance to put his policies into effect because of the old ways that government works,” said Sheree Sifferath, 67, an independent from Gold Canyon, Ariz.
She backed Obama in 2008 but voted for Republican John McCain for the Senate and GOP Rep. Jeff Flake in the midterm elections. She’s open to supporting Obama in two years but hopes that he and Republicans can figure out a way to compromise.
“They can make it better if they just work together. They’ve got to change with the times,” she added.
Research Coordinator Cliff Maceda with AP Election Research contributed to this report.