Obama’s Reagan Democrats

They weren’t crazy about Obama, but they voted for him anyway. Now what do they want?

Barack Obama

The key to Barack Obama’s success may lie with his least enthusiastic supporters. On Saturday, while the rest of America raked leaves and watched college football, 12 of them gathered in a windowless conference room to talk about the election.

The group (six men and six women, all from Virginia) had voted for Barack Obama but were, to varying degrees, late converts—some literally did not decide until they entered the voting booth on Election Day. They included former Bush voters, people who seriously considered supporting John McCain, and Hillary Clinton supporters who did not immediately back Obama. They were there at the invitation of Peter Hart, who has conducted a series of such focus groups with the Annenberg Public Policy Center. He wanted to know how they’d reached their decision and what their expectations were for Obama’s presidency. These are the kinds of voters that Obama is going to need to govern effectively.

About half the group had voted against McCain as much as for Obama. They voted against the Republican because they wanted a break from the Bush years or because they could not support his choice of Sarah Palin. Nine of the 12 said McCain could have won their vote. Mark Parowski, who described himself as a “hard-core Republican,” didn’t pick Obama until the moment he was in the election booth. His wife had been to Obama’s last rally in Manassas, Va., the night before, along with 90,000 others, and said it sounded as if Obama was talking right to her in her living room. His disgust with Republicans was a big factor in his vote, Parowski said, but he also saw backing Obama as a chance to make a generational change.

During the campaign, the McCain team tried to make Obama’s celebrity status a negative. Yet all the press attention clearly helped him: Several in the group said they first heard about Obama through news reports. No one thought he was an elitist celebrity. Several mentioned that he’d once been so poor he owned a car with a hole in the floor. Two women (both of whom voted for Bush in the last two elections) had been impressed by Oprah’s endorsement, which was when they first heard about Obama.

These were not low-information voters—nearly all said they used the Internet to research the candidates—and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they were a gloomy bunch. When Hart asked them to describe the country’s condition in meteorological terms, among the terms they used were “hurricane” and “perfect storm.” One woman worried about having enough money to buy her children presents for Christmas. Several worried whether they’d have jobs. When asked whether they thought America was in decline, nearly everyone raised their hands.

At the same time, they weren’t gloomy about Obama. The word hope cropped up so often that they might have been Obama volunteers rather than late-deciding voters. But they were very patient. Obama has been careful to say change is going to come slowly, and they agree. Asked what they thought the weather would be like in a year, they had low expectations. “Hurricane cleanup,” said one.

Their priorities were predictable—they want the government to help improve the economy and fix the health care system. Iraq did not come up very much at all. They do set a high bar, however, for Obama in one area: tone. They were willing to put up with slow progress on specific reforms, they said, so long as he ran a post-ideological, pragmatic, and honest White House.

They are watching him not just because they want the kind of White House Obama promised. They also think it will give them cues about whether he’ll make good on his other promises. “We’re expecting him to be a Reagan in a way that makes everyone proud to be an American,” said John Bray. “And if he doesn’t do that, people will lose faith in him.”

Obama has already delivered on one promise along these lines. The group was unanimous that Obama’s election had improved the country’s image overseas. Unprompted, several said that his election meant that they no longer had to feel ashamed to be American. “We’re not as racist as everyone thinks we are,” said Ron May. He was one of several in the group who had not only voted twice for George W. Bush but who also backed Republican George Allen against Jim Webb in Virginia’s 2006 Senate race.

The final question Hart asked was what each participant would tell Obama if he called to wish them a happy Thanksgiving. Their thoughts were predictable—keep your promises, etc.—but none of them argued with the premise, which is to say: They all could imagine speaking easily to their new president. And it was clear from their remarks that they are listening to what he says. They think he is one of them, which suggests Obama has a reservoir of trust that might allow him to do the kind of bold things he says he wants to do, including asking Americans to sacrifice, but they don’t want him to lose touch with his own past—and, by extension, with people like them. As one woman advised the president-elect: “Just don’t forget what life was like when your car had that hole.”