The Political Legacy of Robert Kennedy — Barack Obama?

This is part 1 of a 2 part series on RFK and the Obama coalition.

Forty-five years ago today, Senator Robert F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for the President of the United States promising to lead a moral and political uprising to end the war in Vietnam and to fight the corrosive poverty afflicting American cities and rural areas. Affected greatly by the legacy of his brother President John F. Kennedy, his growing alignment with the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, and his work to fight the war on poverty, Sen. Kennedy sought to do what no liberal politician before him had been able to accomplish — unite African Americans, Latinos, young people, and liberal intellectuals with blue collar whites to advance progressive causes and give political voice to the disenfranchised in American society.

Kennedy’s straightforward talk about the problems of “the other America” and the need for racial reconciliation and expanded opportunities for all people — across racial and ethnic lines — rallied communities across the country. Although his campaign lasted only 82 days before he was gunned down in Los Angeles — a few months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — Robert Kennedy’s forward-looking vision and unique political strategy presaged a fundamental transformation of American liberalism away from its New Deal roots and towards the emergent coalition of minorities, young people, women, professionals, and middle class whites that would eventually elect Barack Obama in 2008 and re-elect him in 2012.

The decades following Kennedy’s presidential run were not easy for center-left forces as progressives faced numerous political difficulties, ideological set-backs, and outright campaign and governing failures. A resurgent conservative movement that gained strength during the 1970’s and 1980’s successfully shifted ideological discourse and public policy away from New Deal and Great Society liberalism and towards supply-side principles, social conservatism, and aggressive militarism. At the national level, the Democratic Party lost control of many states, particularly in the South, and a large percentage of its white working class base to an increasingly conservative Republican Party under Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich.


These ideological and political streams eventually converged to cause the most damage during the failed presidency of George W. Bush in the early 2000’s when the United States embarked on series of policy mistakes from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to unfunded tax cuts for the wealthy and the dismantling of federal regulations to protect the environment, public health, and the economy.

With President Obama’s re-election, the tide has clearly turned for progressives as the conservative realignment in American politics has reached its peak and is rapidly declining due to long term changes in America; a new and vibrant coalition in American politics has indisputably arrived. This powerful Obama coalition, presaged by Kennedy in 1968, has the potential to dominate politics for a generation and usher in a new era of progressive public policy.

But will it? That depends on the extent to which this coalition can be mobilized and broadened as we move forward.

The strengths of the coalition are obvious, starting with minority voters. The share of minority voters in the 2012 election increased by 2 percentage points, bringing their share of the voting electorate to 28 percent. That compares to just 15 percent of voters in 1988.

Overall, Obama received 80 percent support from people of color in 2012 just as he did in 2008. His support among African-Americans was almost as overwhelming last November (93–6) as it was in 2008 (95–4). And his support among Hispanics (71–27) improved substantially over its 2008 level (67–31). In addition, Obama achieved historic levels of support among Asian-Americans, carrying them by 73–26, compared to 62–35 in 2008.


Adding to the power of the minority vote is the certainty of its continued growth. The share of minority voters in the 2016 election should be around 30 percent and, in the 2020 election, around 32 percent.

Millennial generation (born 1978–2000) voters are also a central component of the Obama coalition. Young voters in the 18–29 year old age group — all Millennials — defied skepticism about their likely levels of voter turnout, comprising 19 percent of voters in 2012, up from 18 percent in Obama’s historic campaign of 2008. In addition, since many Millennials are now older than 29, the share of Millennials among voters is significantly underestimated by just looking at 18–29 year olds. Taking these older Millennials into account, the true share of Millennials in the 2012 electorate was probably around 26 percent.

Millennial 18–29 year olds supported Obama by a 23-point margin in the 2012 election (60 percent to 37 percent). This is strong support, by far Obama’s best performance among any age group, just as was the case in 2008, when Obama performed even more strongly among these voters (66–32).

As with people of color, we will see more and more of these voters in the electorate over the next several elections, as the number of Millennial eligible voters increases by about 4 million a year. By the 2016 election, Millennials should be about 36 percent of eligible voters and roughly a third of actual voters. And by the 2020 election, Millennials should be nearly 2 in 5 (39 percent) eligible voters and around 36 percent of actual voters.

Unmarried women are another key part of the Obama coalition. Obama carried this group by a wide 67–31 margin in 2012, not far off his 70–29 margin in 2008. Unmarried women were also a larger share of voters, 23 percent vs. 21 percent in 2008. This trend may continue in the future, since the growth rate of unmarried women is roughly twice that of married women.

While not as strong for Obama as unmarried women, their male counterparts also favored Obama, giving him a healthy 56–40 margin, close to the 58–38 margin they gave him in 2008. And their share of voters went up even more, increasing by 4 points to 18 percent. All told, unmarried voters were 40 percent of voters in 2012, up 6 points from 2008’s 34 percent share.


Obama also received strong support from those of non-Christian faiths (72–27) and those with no religious affiliation (70–26). In addition, voters with a postgraduate education (a good proxy for professionals) supported Obama by 55–42 and residents of large metropolitan areas (54 percent of voters) supported him by 56–42. Again, all of these groups have been growing and should continue to grow over time.

Obama generally did poorly among white voters but the college-educated were a relative bright spot. He lost this group by 14 points (as compared to 20 points among all white voters) and did substantially better among white college-educated women, losing them by a modest 6 points. White college-educated voters have been increasing both as a share of overall voters and — very rapidly — as a share of white voters. Based on historical patterns and projections of future educational attainment, these trends should continue for some time.

(Part 2 of the series will examine strategies for connecting diverse constituencies with the white working class.)