By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
To foreshadow, my answers will be “no,” since the boundaries of the “Obama Coalition” have become so hazy it’s only useful as a concept to the lazier sort of pundit or the more venal variety of consultant, and “maybe so,” at least after we change the article from definite to indefinite and say “An “Obama Coalition.”
But first, what do we mean by coalition? To answer that question, we’ll first define faction. In Federalist #10, in one of those passages that’s so up-to-date it hurts, Madison writes:
By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.
(So, you could think of a white supremacist organization as a faction “adversed to the rights of other citizens,” and you could think of the American Tobacco Institute, say, as adversed “to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”) Madison goes on:
The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.
The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society.
(At this point I will pause to point out that to Madison, property must have been a superset of property in human beings.) And Madison goes on to recommend a republican, as opposed to a democratic, form of government, to handle the case where a faction includes a majority of the voters. To us, factions are important because they are the components of coalitions (Poli Sci wonks please chime in here.) From the Hans Noel in the Mischiefs of Faction blog (2012):
Madison had never seen a modern political party, and it’s rather likely that if he did, he would say that it was a faction. But it wasn’t what he had in mind. He was thinking about groups with a common interest. Something closer to an interest group. But modern political parties are coalitions of many different interests. Indeed, they are formed in part to directly surmount the obstacle Madison put in front of them. The republic is large, and the individual interests in it are small. It is hard for them to coordinate and organize. But they do. And to do so, they use the institution of a political party. It
one notable feature of contemporary parties is how much they really do agree. We do not live in the age of the oversized New Deal coalition, uniting northern liberals and southern conservatives in the Democratic Party. Or even the union of Taft and Eisenhower wings of the Republican Party. While the parties are still coalitions, with significant internal disagreements, for the most part the two parties are now ideologically cohesive, and the division between the parties is orders of magnitude more important than squabbles within them. (Calling them ideologically distinct is, I think, better than “polarized,” but I am getting at the same idea.)
So, parties are (1) coalitions of factions; and abstracting a bit from Noel, we can expect such coalitions to (2) persist over many election cycles; the New Deal coalition certainly did. Following Noel, a coalition (3) has scale: It’s “oversized” or “ideologically cohesive.” Further, following Madison (though this is elided by Noel) we can expect (4) “the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property” to be central to the material basis for faction formation (as one might expect in a capitalist society). Finally, note that neither Madison nor Noel give consideration to (5) power structures (for example, leaders and followers, or the “national” and the “local”) within factions. (Factional power structures are important because they raise the question of different rights to property, especially rents, among factional members, which makes the faction vulnerable to what we might call The Three C’s — Credentialism, Clientelism, and Corruption.
If the “Obama Coalition” is anything, it’s coalition within the Democratic Party. If we use the test of (1) factions, (2) persistence, (3) scale, (4) property interests, and (5) power structures, how does “The “Obama Coalition”,” as a concept, stack up? Not well. Since time presses, I will discuss only the first three. (However, it’s very easy to fit both youth (debt) and Blacks (reperations) under the aegis of factional property rights issues. And we’ll see power structures in action when we discuss Nevada.)
The “Obama Coalition”: Factions
If there is indeed an “Obama Coalition,” we should be able to define it by identifying the factions that comprise it. This is surprisingly difficult; in fact, most journalists simply assume the slippery term is well-defined. For example, CNN (2016):
The question for Clinton, as she faces a closer-than-expected race with Sanders and a potentially tight general election, is how much Obama helps her as she seeks to mobilize the “Obama Coalition” of 2008 and 2012 but tries to mitigate the impact of his political failings.
Ditto David Plouffe, on the McConnell’s first move in the upcoming Scalia replacement battle:
Well, the Senate GOP might have just ensured the “Obama Coalition” turns out in ’16. Dem WH for 16 straight years, Dem Senate in ’17. Geniuses.
(Bonus points for the “party of stupid” riff, which explains 2010 and 2014 so well, right?)
At the Times, we get slightly higher grade analysis in 2015:
If [Clinton] won, it would suggest that the so-called “Obama Coalition” of voters is transferable to another Democrat.
At least we’re naming factions now, though I find placing all Blacks, all Hispanics, all Asians, as well as, presumably, Native Americans, the multiracial, etc. under the heading of “non-white” a little breathtaking.)
Of course, that’s not how Iowa Pollster Anne Selzer defines it in 2016:
Sanders “leads by eight points with people who say this is the first time they’ll participate in the caucus,” Selzer said. “He leads by over 20 points with . Now that’s the “Obama Coalition”.”
(No factions at all, here.)
Nor is it how WaPo defined it after the Democratic debacle in 2014:
The DSCC spent $60 million on its “Bannock Street Project” to maximize turnout of the “”Obama Coalition”” — .
(Back to factions, but not all women; just unmarried and/or young women. And not all non-whites.)
And from the Washington Monthly, before the 2014 debacle, from Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin:
Some observers argue that since the ranks of the white working class are declining, Democrats should simply rely instead on their rising “Obama Coalition” of living in more urbanized states.
(So now we have not the “white working class,” but presumably all “minorities” (working class or not,” along with “working women” (presumably neither white nor working class), plus “seculars, Millennials, and educated whites living in more urbanized states.”
(Teixeira and Halpin are big drones in the Democratic hive mind, so to be fair I looked up two of their deliverables for the Center for American Progress: 2012 (PDF) and 2015 (2015). Athough “The Obama Coalition” features prominently in the titles of both works, neither actually defines the term.)
And here’s Teixeira in 2016, interviewed in WaPo:
PLUM LINE: You define the central question of 2016 as: “Can the “Obama Coalition” survive?” Can you explain what you mean?
RUY TEIXEIRA: The “Obama Coalition” in 2012 consisted of . If you look at the support rates these groups gave to Obama in 2012, and walk those support rates into the probable representation of these voting groups in 2016, the “Obama Coalition” would deliver a third victory for Democrats.
(So, women out (!!), educated (i.e., well off) whites in, minorities in, Millenials, so-called, in, and including, presumably, the well-educated fraction of the latter two factions.)
I hope I have persuaded you that the “Obama Coalition” is, if not exactly meaningless, meaningful only when the factions that comprise it are defined by the person using the term. (I mean, last I checked, there are a lot of women voters out there, so you’d think that whether they were in or out of “Obama Coalition” would be a big deal. But authorities totally disagree!) Oh, and oddly, or not, unions aren’t part of the Obama Coalition at all, by any definition. Nor are wage workers.
However, I’ve got to make assumptions about factional membership in order to write the rest of the post. So I’m going to arbitrarily posit that the “Obama Coalition” comprises at least Blacks, Hispanics, women, and youth. (A functional definition of the “Obama Coalition” might be that it is designed to enable discourse about faction while erasing discussion of Madison’s property rights. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m accepting that function.)
The “Obama Coalition”: Coalition Persistence
If the “Obama Coalition,” assuming it to exist as I have defined it, is to persist over many election cycles, it shouldn’t be easy for anybody to break it up. (After all, it took immense, generation-long and well-funded efforts by conservative revanchists to fracture the New Deal coalition, so that seems a reasonable baseline). So let’s look at the youth vote in the Iowa caucus, from the entrance polls:
Look at the youth vote: Sanders peeled it right off. As the Atlantic puts it:
In the Iowa entrance poll (which questions voters on the way into a caucus, rather than on their way out the door, like “exit polls” in primaries) Sanders amassed astounding margins among young people. He crushed Clinton by an almost unimaginable six to one—84 percent to 14 percent—among voters younger than 30. For those tempted to dismiss that as just a campus craze, he also routed her by 58 percent to 37 percent among those aged 30 to 44.
The point is not that Clinton, or Sanders, is the true and pure earthly representative of the (purely notional) Obama Coalition, but that if there were such a coalition, it wouldn’t split like that.
In Iowa, Sanders peeled off youth. In New Hampshire, Sanders peeled off women. Again, if the “Obama Coalition” were a thing, that shouldn’t be able to happen. At least it shouldn’t be able to happen as easily and quickly as it did. (Note that “Iowa and New Hampshire are both white!” is no defense for the “Obama Coalition” as a viable concept; youth is youth; women are women, at least in the usages and definitions given by the users of the term.)
Finally, the same peeling off process may have happened in the Nevada caucuses. From the initial coverage: “In Nevada, Hillary Clinton wins black voters, loses Hispanics.” Clinton partisans argued that the entrance polling methodology was off, given that Clinton won Clark County, which is Hispanic heavy. The polling firm responded by saying that youth voted disproportionately for Sanders, and that there were more youthful Hispanic voters this year than previously. The Times dithered and came down that Clinton may have won the Hispanic vote, but “modestly.” Regardless: (1) if the “Obama Coalition” were a thing, that shouldn’t be able to happen. We might also remember that (2) Harry Reid and the Culinary union carried the Strip, and hence Clark County, for Clinton. Power structures aren’t supposed to be part of the “Obama Coalition” model — because power is not virtuous, I imagine — and yet here it is! Finally (3) even if Sanders won only a substantial minority of Hispanics, that should dispose of the canard that he’s running a campaign for whites only (or, in the stronger terms that it is no longer even necessary to state, that he and his supporters are racists).
The “Obama Coalition”: Coalition Scale
Recall that Noel posited a distinction between an “overly broad” party coalition like the New Deal Coalition, with the more ideologically coherent coalitions of today. If indeed the “Obama Coalition” is a thing, it has managed to achieve the worse of both worlds: Neither overly broad, nor ideologically coherent. Taking “favoring the wealthy” as a proxy for more precise ideological positions on jailing bankers, or single payer, or free college, check this result from New Hampshire:
Again, if the “Obama Coalition” were a thing, a result like this would not be happening.
Even if “The Obama Coalition” is a nonsense, “An Obama Coalition” makes sense. Of course, we know that from the 2010 debacle. WaPo (2013):
Here’s what the 2008 and 2012 elections taught us: President Obama built a national political coalition — the three main pillars of which were — that Republicans couldn’t come close to touching. Here’s what the 2010 election taught us: That “Obama Coalition” is not directly transferrable to all Democratic candidates.
(Factions listed; women thrown under the bus.) But the 2010 disaster won’t prevent the 2016 Clinton campaign from doubling down. WaPo (2016):
Clinton has paid close attention to the building blocks of Obama’s coalition — including Iowa’s small but growing population of minority voters, which the president activated on his winning caucus night.
For good or ill, the “Obama Coalition” is not a coherent concept, although the political class behaves as if it were. This is, of course, simply a critique of the concept, and not a recommendation for action by any candidate; I leave that to Democratic strategists. Readers?
 The closest we get is from 2015: “The heart of the “Obama Coalition” is the minority vote. In 2012, President Obama received 81 percent support from communities of color, a group that made up 27 percent of all voters.” Obviously, “the heart of” is not a definition. And there’s also that troubling assumption that all Blacks, all Hispanics, and all Native Americans are necessarily grouped under “communities of color.” Notice also the absence of women and youth. Or wage work even as a category.