WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton long planned to activate the vaunted Obama coalition to help carry her to the White House. But a rough month on the trail has exposed a big challenge — the Obama coalition belongs to Barack Obama.
Clinton’s struggle to win over Obama’s supporters — most notably young voters — has served as a reminder that many of them are more loyal to him than to his Democratic Party. Republican Donald Trump’s recent rise in the polls helps demonstrate that Obama’s two victories were more about one man in the right moment than any political realignment.
Rather than showing a formula for winning the White House for years come, as many Democrats hoped, Obama’s coalition may fail to outlast his own presidency. If that happens, Obama — long known for his dislike of party politics — will share some of the blame.
“The enduring Obama coalition is a bit of an urban legend,” said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. “It was very much shaped by that election in that period.”
This hard reality is not lost on the president. After months of appearing coolly confident about Clinton’s chances, Obama has begun to acknowledge the alternative and get out on the campaign trail on her behalf.
“This shouldn’t be close, but it’s close,” Obama recently told donors in New York. His pitch to his most die-hard backers was telling: “I will consider it a personal insult, an insult to my legacy,” if African American voters don’t turn out.
Some part of Obama’s public display of anxiety is an attempt to fight complacency. Even as Trump has gained in both national and battleground state polls, Clinton continues to have more paths to victory — a stronger campaign network and more money — than her opponent.
But Obama’s comments acknowledge his personal connection that drove Democrats to the polls four years ago — one Clinton has struggled to match. It reinforces an argument that some Democrats have long made: Obama’s election was a combination of biography, history and an electorate hungry for change.
“At the end of the day, Hillary Clinton has to be the one to inspire the Obama coalition to turn out, but President Obama can and will help,” said Dan Pfieffer, a former Obama senior adviser. “These voters have only ever turned out when President Obama was on the ballot, so it is going to take work to have them turn out when he isn’t.”
Clinton’s vulnerabilities have become glaring. Obama won two-thirds of young voters in 2009, and 60 percent in 2012, according to exit polls. But recent polls have found Clinton is not only shy of Obama’s mark but also well behind John Kerry’s level of support with young voters when he lost in 2004.
An Associated Press/GfK survey conducted last week showed Clinton with 48 percent of likely voters under 30, while Trump had 27 percent, Libertarian Gary Johnson had 14 percent and Green Party candidate Jill Stein 3 percent.
Clinton’s troubles actually may be less with the Obama voters in that group than with their younger siblings. They came of age during the politically polarized Obama era, leaving them more willing to consider a third-party option.
“There is definitely a less partisan bent among those voters,” said Jeremy Bird, Obama’s national field director in 2012 and a Clinton consultant. “Part of it is frustration with party gridlock and distrust of institutions.”
Clinton backers say she can still pull together a winning coalition, even with a diminished youth vote. She has strong support among Hispanics and blacks, core Obama voters, although at slightly lower levels. Meanwhile, Trump’s candidacy has opened up opportunities for Clinton with college-educated voters and suburban white women, groups that appear to be turned off by his rhetoric and lack of foreign policy experience.
“If you look at where her vote is, and it’s been pretty stable, college-educated women are a big piece of it,” said Greenberg.
Obama could have done more to build up the party. The president notably formed his own shadow organization in his Organizing for Action — an extension of his campaign — to carry on his political agenda rather than depend on the Democratic National Committee. That model left scant resources for state parties to build grass-roots organizations or build a bench of up-and-coming politicians.
As the head of a political party, Obama’s limits were repeatedly clear. He had little success in his efforts to campaign for others, even with the advantage of the White House. Republicans have seen gains in statehouses In two midterm elections. Obama’s voters didn’t show up — despite his urgent and personal appeals.
Clinton, a creature of another political era, has promised she won’t take that tack
“It’s time to rebuild our party from the ground up and if you make me the nominee, that’s exactly what I will do,” she said last year. “I hope you’ll join me because we’re building something that will last long after next November.”