President Obama wraps up his three-day bus tour of North Carolina and Virginia on Wednesday, a jaunt designed to sell his $447 billion jobs bill to voters in two swing states he wrested from the GOP in 2008. The trip’s route has been telling. Repeating his victories in these pivotal Southern battlegrounds will be a challenge for Obama. Recent polls have shown his support sliding in Virginia, a state he won by a seven-point margin four years ago.
The President’s popularity problem is particularly acute among the white, blue-collar workers who form of the backbone of rural communities in the Old Dominion and around the country. A national TIME poll conducted earlier this month lays bare the degree to which he’ll struggle to compete for this segment of the electorate next November. Among white respondents without a college education, just 26% approved of the President’s performance. Obama registered the support of just one-third of likely voters from this cohort in a prospective general-election match-up against Mitt Romney, and 32% of white males without a college education against Rick Perry.
Even among the demographic groups that flocked to him in droves four years ago, Obama is falling out of favor amid high unemployment. In a TIME survey taken in June, 57% of college-educated women approved of the President’s job performance. This month that number fell to 49% in TIME’s survey, a notch above the 47% who disapproved, but a significant slip in a few short months. Obama still trounces his leading Republican rivals in the race for this key group’s likely voters, holding a 54% to 38% edge over Romney and a 56% to 34% advantage over Perry among likely voters. But his diminishing support among a demographic squarely in his wheelhouse must be disconcerting for his boosters.
The route of Obama’s bus tour, which has wound through the Blue Ridge Mountains and rural communities slammed by the sluggish economy, as well as the message he’s heralded along the way offer clues about how the President plans to sell swing-state voters on a second term. He has frequented familiar haunts like schools and small businesses, unleashed jeremiads against Republican obstructionism, and sought to spotlight his broadly popular proposals, from aid for cash-strapped states and municipalities to today’s push for a public-private partnership to hire war veterans.
His expressions of empathy for the frustrations animating the Occupy Wall Street protesters should also play well even in these rural areas. The organizing principles, such as they are, of Occupy Wall Street are popular across the income spectrum. Among those surveyed by TIME who were familiar with Occupy Wall Street, sweeping majorities agreed with the movement’s grievance that the gap between rich and poor has grown too large, including 85% of households making under $50,000 per year and 65% of those making more than $100,000 annually. Almost three-quarters of households earning up to $100,000 backed the contention that the rich should pay more taxes. Even 52% of households making more than $100,000 per year agreed. Seventy-three percent support a surtax on millionaires to help close the federal deficit, a provision Senate Democrats recently tacked onto Obama’s proposal to put the GOP in the uncomfortable position of opposing it.
Congressional Republicans have derided these tactics as class warfare, while the White House calls it sound economics. But these figures suggest that were Obama to hit these notes more aggressively, the public would respond. It’s something to bear in mind as the President works to shore up his faltering support in critical swing states.