Listen to President Obama and Mitt Romney on the campaign trail, and you could be forgiven for briefly thinking only one gender is allowed to vote. Both candidates regularly tailor their message to female voters: You can see it in the president's attacks on Romney's desire to cut Planned Parenthood funding and potentially appoint judges to overturn Roe v. Wade, and in Romney's claim that "this president has failed America's women" due to an uptick in female poverty.
There's a reason for this: Women are widely perceived as more likely than men to be swing voters. In the battleground state of Colorado, for example, both campaigns are open about the fact that they believe
Yet all the talk about women might make it easy to forget that men are a significant chunk of the electorate as well. While women outvoted men by about 10 million votes in the 2008 presidential election, men still made up 48 percent of the electorate. And white men alone made up more than one third of the electorate - 36 percent - according to national exit polls.
It's true that whites are slowly shrinking as a portion of the electorate as blacks, Hispanics and Asians grow in influence, which is why you don't see many news stories about them as a voting bloc. But they still pack a powerful electoral punch. White men, in fact, are providing the biggest drag on the president of any voting bloc as he tries to win another four years in the Oval Office. Even if the president gets his expected 80 percent support from minority voters, he is unlikely to win the election if he can't win more than one in three white men. And he might not.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week found that white men support Romney over Mr. Obama 65 percent to 32 percent - a 2-to-1 margin. That suggests the president is doing worse among white men then he did in 2008, when exit polls showed he lost white men by a 57 percent to 41 percent margin. The poll also found white men moving away from the president: Romney's 19-point mid-October lead on handling the economy among the group has risen to 35 points today.
The 2008 numbers were actually pretty good for a Democrat, at least when it comes to recent history. Mr. Obama's share of the white male vote was the highest for a member of his party since 1976, when Jimmy Carter won almost half of white male voters. (In each of his two presidential elections, George W. Bush won white men by more than 25 points.) Yet Mr. Obama's support among white men appears to have slipped since 2008. A big loss among white men would particularly hurt the president in the Midwestern swing states of Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa.
The movement of white men away from Democrats over the past four decades, argued Progressive Policy Institute President Will Marshall, is tied to both the culture war and the perception of "a change in the focal point of Democratic economic policymaking."
"Many white men, and many, in particular, non-college white men, have not seen that the Democratic economic agenda is in their interest," said Marshall. "There's an account from the left that says these voters have been estranged from Democrats on social issues. And there's some truth to that. But I also think these voters believe the economic policies of Democrats have benefitted somebody else - not them. Women, minorities, interest groups. They don't feel that Democrats have championed the interests of white male voters in modern times as they did in the days of Roosevelt/Truman."
The good news - or the less bad news - for Mr. Obama is that the problem is far worse in the South than it is in the Midwestern swing states. Look specifically at the white working class, who were somewhat supportive of Bill Clinton in 1996 but have consistently broken against Democrats since that election. A survey released last month by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that Romney led 48 to 35 percent among whites lacking four-year college degrees who are paid by the hour or the job. Yet while Romney led by 40 points among southern working-class whites, the president actually led by eight points among Midwestern working-class whites. The president's relative strength among whites in the Midwest is the reason a state like Pennsylvania appears likely to remain blue despite a relatively large white population.
"The sense that he's doing better with white voters in the Midwest is the firewall for Barack Obama," Marshall said. "It's what's giving him hope that he can win in the Electoral College even if he potentially loses the popular vote."
Romney struggled in Midwestern states in the Republican primaries against Rick Santorum, and the Obama campaign's characterization of Romney as an uncaring plutocrat with little concern for the employees of the companies he bought and sold at Bain Capital may be particularly resonant there. The auto bailout also boosted the president among white working-class voters in Ohio and elsewhere in the region, and it helps the president that the region is more unionized than the rest of the nation.
"Obama has had policies that have helped the economy in the Midwest, particularly the auto bailout and the efforts to improve manufacturing," said Darrell West, vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He said that whites in the south and in rural areas, meanwhile, have "seen the downsides of the economic policies without getting very many of the benefits."
It's worth putting a point on the gender gap here: The PRRI study found that while Romney holds a 2-1 advantage among white working class men, the two candidates were tied among white-working class women. David Paul Kuhn, author of "The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma,"that Democrats have seen a 25 percent decline in white working-class male support between 1948 and 2004, even as white working-class women held steady. Democrats generally perform far worse with men than women, just as they perform worse with whites than minority voters.
The economic downturn may only have exacerbated the president's white male problem. The effect of the 2008 economic collapse has been dubbed a "he-cession" because it disproportionately left men out of work. "White men have suffered disproportionately from the recession, and it's been hard for them to make up for the lost wages," said West. "It's been a real challenge for Obama to convince those people they would do better in a second term."
The Obama campaign says its overall economic message resonates with all middle-class voters, including white men.
"Middle-class Americans, regardless of age, gender or race, have a clear choice in this election," said Deputy National Press Secretary Adam Fetcher. "President Obama is working to tell every American about his concrete, detailed plan to move America forward, get folks back to work and strengthen the middle class." Fetcher went on to attack Romney as "outsourcer-in-chief at Bain Capital."
The Romney campaign, meanwhile, is trying to win over white men with its argument that the president has been a poor steward of the economy. It has also targeted white working-class men in the Midwest by arguing that the president has engaged in a "war on coal," a message that is particularly resonant in southeastern Ohio.
The silver lining in all this for Democrats: The impact of their disadvantage among white men looks likely to diminish as time goes on.
"Democrats have a demographic problem with white men, but that portion of the electorate is shrinking. So it will become less of a problem in future presidential elections," said West. "The problem is for Democrats to get through this election. Their long-term strategy actually looks good."