Is “The Obama Coalition” Even a Thing? Was It Ever?

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

And further:

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.[1] 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 young, nonwhite and female 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 people who say they consider themselves independent, and people who are under age 45. 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”” — blacks, Latinos, unmarried women and young people.

(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 minorities, unmarried and working women, seculars, Millennials, and educated whites 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.[1])

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 the minority vote (blacks, Latinos, Asians, and those of other races); the millennial generation; and more educated white voters. 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.

The same is true in New Hampshire:


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 African Americans, Hispanics and young voters — 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?


[1] 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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Guest Post, Politics on by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. James Levy

    Obviously, in 2008 and 2012 Obama had voters, and those voters tended to be pretty strongly centered among African-Americans, younger voters, and women (the so-called gender gap which is real and persistent and helps the Democrats). But many of those votes were as much symbolic as they were programmatic. And Romney was kryptonite to most of those people, so that helped Obama hold together the same demographics (which is really what we are talking about rather than coalitions or factions).

    If the Democrats have a faction it is among educated, affluent urban and suburban voters who support female equality, fear the rule of right-wing Protestantism, and enjoy the status quo. These people are at ease with blacks and other minorities being treated fairly, but not if it means higher taxes or a hit to their 401ks. This is the core of the Obama/Clinton voting and contribution cadre.

    1. DJG

      JL: Second paragraph deftly describes the fan club. I’d add: And many of them don’t want their so-called liberal ideals to have any economic consequences. (I’m going for a broader resistance to economic equality than you are.)

      1. weinerdog43

        That is indeed, very interesting. It definitely begs the question of what happens to Clinton’s support if the economy gets any worse between now and this summer, let alone November.

  2. Greg T

    A coalition implies staying power of the policies which undergird it. The New Deal coalition lasted for 36 years and rested upon a foundation of reduced inequality, fair wage for fair work, and basic economic protections to prevent outright ruin. Those economic tenets united northern liberals and southern conservatives and the policies lasted beyond the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. One can judge the strength of a coalition by how the opposing party must act to remain within it. Even with Republicans in power during the peak of the New Deal coalition, they could not stray too far from New Deal policies. The Obama coalition is not a coalition, but rather a moment. It specifies a point in time that various factions came together to twice elect a president, but the policies which undergird the Obama administration are unpopular and have no staying power. It’s a candidate-centric event; one that Hillary Clinton is unlikely to duplicate.

  3. Steven D.

    I am amazed that older AAs appear to consider supporting Hillary to be a group loyalty thing, since she’s never done a thing for them and arguably has done a lot to hurt them.

    The support of subsegments like these of minorities groups and women, people who turn out for Democratic caucuses and primaries, may carry Hillary over the finish line for the nomination, but the larger Obama coalition, or people who turned out for him in 2008 and 2012, aren’t coming out for her. Disaffected working class whites will come out for the Donald and he will win.

    Hillary supporters are the kinds of people who came out for the Democrats in 2010 and 2014. That wasn’t enough for the Democrats then (whether they actually wanted to win is another story) and it won’t be enough for Hillary in 2016.

    1. Jason

      It’s a good thing for Hillary then, that all the likely Republican candidates will be so terrifying. She can campaign solely against the bogey-man with the (R) after his name, and maybe have a chance at winning on fear alone.

    2. NotTimothyGeithner

      The inclination to the reptilian, conservative mind isn’t limited to old, white men. Please try of African Americans would be perfect Republicans if the were white. They can’t vote Republican for obvious reasons, but a number of segments of the black community did not like MLK or his message. Until Jessie Jackson who forced a major change in black churches, King and Abernathy were pariahs among black ministers. The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” used the term “white moderate.” According to Julian Bond this was code for black ministers to embarrass them without embarrassing them because the primary obstacle to collective action was the 1950’s black misleadership class. Bond didn’t use that term, but he got the point across.

    3. MichaelC

      I have a hard time believing disaffected working class whites who are Democrats will come out for the Donald if Hillary is the candidate. Bernie is their man. Trump is loathed by that bloc.

      I think they’ll stay home in disgust with their party instead.

      Establishment Rs will defect and vote for Hillary over Trump. She’s the lesser evil so
      the R’s can afford to ‘lose’ the WH to Hillary, but it won’t be much of a loss if they retain legislative and Governership control.

      Clearly she is campaigning solely for the establishment vote from both parties, She’s not even trying to appeal to Latinos or AAs. She assumes they have nowhere else to go. Same thing with Bernie’s base.

      Trump in the WH is suicide for both parties.

      Ironically, Hillary is the establishment Rs only viable candidate.

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        Remember how “moderate Republicans would vote for the conservative Democratic candidate over the lunatic teabagger in (insert virtually every race a Democrat loses)? This time will be different because…well…Hillary…made a youtube.

        McCain/Palin received 59 million votes. This was after Couric asked if Palin could read. They will line up for Trump.

          1. Ulysses

            Outside of upstate New York and New England, I rarely run across any self-described “moderate Republicans” any longer. Many who used to proudly wear that label are now proud to call themselves independent. In fact, a majority of registered voters today have extremely weak loyalty to either of the two legacy parties.

            This has been a slow, gradual transformation over my adult lifetime that I first began to dimly observe with the candidacy of Ross Perot. I was shocked to see some of my more plutocrat-friendly, conservative relatives vote for Perot rather than Bush in 1992. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he was a “billionaire populist.” I think Donald Trump, like Perot, has found a way to attract people who distrust the transnational kleptocrats and prefer a good old-fashioned “patriotic” robber baron who “loves America.” Even the highly propagandized, relentlessly demoralized American people can still understand that anyone who supports TPP, outsourcing, etc. doesn’t care about them.

            Yet there is a huge difference between Perot and Trump: the latter feels emboldened to overtly go full-bore white supremacist in attracting supporters, the former did not.

  4. dk

    Coalition comes from “coalesce“, which, going back to the Latin roots (cum alere, co-alescere) literalizes to “to grow together”, or “something that grew together from separate elements”.

    So there is an implication of passive and eventual rather than forced and/or instantaneous process. This also implies a much looser binding than that of factions, which develop from immediate distinction and circumstance. Factions divide, coalitions join.

    Beyond that, I think Noel’s invocation arbitrarily tries to attach additional characteristics (size, durability) based on a few specific examples that should not be generalized to apply to all coalitions, the Obama Coalition a case in point.

    And in the case of “Obama Coalition”, I think that phrase has been used to construe a degree of mutual selection by the various Obama-supporting factions to a greater extent than the fact. Not only would many nominal faction members as readily consider each other (potential) opponents rather than allies (blacks and hispanics are a specific example, asians and any other group as another), but the idea of “let’s work with these other factions to …” is not required for coalition to occur. Faction leaders (and political operatives) like to claim the power to have brokered such coalitions, but coalition and brokerage occur and behave very differently. I think it’s important to avoid buying into the narrative of such claims, as the MSM is wont to do.

    In other words, “Obama Coalition” is a media fiction, reflecting if anything a convergence of interests rather than mutual recognition, much less mutual identification or allegiance.

    And the Clinton Coalition is an attempt to more aggressively broker allegiance of the various (potential) component factions. That’s not to say that it won’t work as a relatively brief campaign strategy, but it’s not going to be very durable beyond that (setting up the punditry for as many rounds of snark and hand-wringing as they can get out of it). And beside, a limited-ambition incumbency does as well to deliver little or nothing in a first term, rather than risk satisfying some factions significantly more than others.

    I also notice that nobody seems to mention the GLBT faction, a relatively small but more generally activist faction… but I haven’t poured through all of the linked reference. GLBT were early Obama supporters and should be recognized as key builders (not brokers) of any actual Obama Coalition.

      1. dk

        That’s true. Now that you mention it, GLBT (as a faction) was split between O and C in 2008. So, not a solid faction for Obama Coalition.

  5. weinerdog43

    It’s been a long day and I’m tired, but I think Obama’s 2008 “coalition” rested more with:

    1.) Bush loathing/fatigue;
    2.) Anti Iraq war; &
    3.) Hope (as naive as that now sounds) that he could make ordinary American lives better.

    The 2010 election results were the natural result of millions of Dem voters realizing they had been had.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      Poor organization too. Voter registration and gotv do matter. They require energized activists. Even if liberals still vote, they won’t work to help people who face difficulty voting to vote. Most people don’t pay attention until October often past the registration deadline. All the ad money in the world won’t fix this.

    2. dk

      I think Obama 2008 also had a lot of “let’s elect a black guy!”

      In 2010, many Dems hadn’t given up on Obama yet, that later did.

      2010 was the result of:

      a) dismantling OFA and the 50-state strategy… right before re-districting which was like the party shooting itself in both feet, both knees, and one hand, nationally. Basically, the DNC and vendor establishment was scared of what OFA could do to disrupt the DNC’s agenda (broker power and raise corporate money by “controlling” the “left”).

      b) tea party success a the state levels. Kochs funded a lot of TP astroturfing and state candidates, but the TP really turned out the far-right and indy-right. Congressional campaigns are completely different from presidentials, more opportunity to tailor messages to local themes. And without (50) state level strategies, the DCCC was basically useless, they just picked “battlegrounds” and screwed up on several of those, too (in New Mexico we told them to back off).

Comments are closed.