This presidential election is coming down to two immutable facts that have become increasingly clear as November draws closer: President Obama will be running for a second term under a stagnant economy, and his two most significant legislative accomplishments—health care reform and a job-goosing stimulus—remain deeply unpopular. It doesn’t take a professional pundit to recognize that’s a very tough ticket for reelection.
But there is a glaring disconnect between the conventional wisdom, which still maintains that Obama has a slight edge in the electoral-map math, and the fundamentals pointing to the possibility of a decisive defeat for the president.
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The three most recent national polls—Democracy Corps (D), Gallup/USA Today, and the Politico/George Washington University Battleground Poll—underscore how tough a reelection campaign Obama faces and why it’s fair to call him an underdog at this point. He’s stuck at 47 percent against Mitt Romney in all three surveys, with the small slice of undecided voters tilting against the president. His job approval ranges from 45 percent (Democracy Corps) to 48 percent (Battleground). Those numbers are hardly devastating, but given today’s polarized electorate, they’re not encouraging either.
Obama’s scores on the economy are worsening, even as voters still have mixed feelings on who’s to blame. In the Battleground survey, nearly as many voters now blame Obama for the state of the economy (39 percent) as those who don’t think it’s his fault (40 percent). In both the Battleground and Democracy Corps polls, 33 percent said the country is on the right track, with 59 percent saying it’s on the wrong track—numbers awfully similar to the state of play right before the 2010 Republican landslide. These are several leading indicators that suggest the trajectory could well get worse for the president as the election nears.
And the survey data suggest that Republicans in Congress, unlike their Newt Gingrich-led counterparts in 1996, aren’t shaping up to be the reviled opposition (yet) that the White House is hoping they’ll be. The Battleground survey found Republicans leading Democrats by 2 points on the generic congressional ballot, while Democracy Corps found Democrats in Congress with only a slightly higher approval score (43.1) than Republicans (41.2). If the public favors Hill Democrats, it’s by a narrow margin.
The other big red flag for the president is the waning enthusiasm of his base—college-age voters, African-Americans, and Hispanics. The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that fewer than half of voters (45 percent) ages 18-34 expressed a high interest in the election, down 17 points from the same time four years ago. Democratic enthusiasm overall is down 16 points from 2008, and it now lags behind the GOP.
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This is critical, because, for Obama, excitement is as important as persuasion. It’s no coincidence that Obama held his first two rallies on college campuses. Obama campaign officials have been anticipating an upward tick in the minority share of the electorate for 2012 to compensate for the expected loss of older, white voters, and they are counting on college students to organize and rally behind the president, like they did for him in 2008. Those assumptions are hardly guaranteed.
While the campaign generated loud, enthusiastic crowds in Columbus, Ohio, and Richmond, Va., it fell thousands short of packing the 18,000-seat arena at Ohio State. For most candidates, gathering thousands at any event is impressive, but for a president so dependent on that segment of his coalition, it’s a glaring shortfall. For comparison’s sake: Before the 2010 midterms, Obama drew more than 35,000 students to the Ohio State campus to rally supporters for then-Gov. Ted Strickland.
Actions speak louder than spin, and the moves of Obama’s campaign officials this past week indicate they are awfully worried about their prospects. The most recent telltale sign is that they went up with an early, expensive $25 million ad buy on Monday in nine swing states, attempting to reintroduce the president in the best possible way. This was no rinky-dink purchase; it cost nearly one-quarter of the Obama campaign’s war chest of $104 million at the beginning of April. Going up with such a significant buy so early is the equivalent of abandoning the running game in football when your team is down by a couple of touchdowns.
The ad itself is in search of a cohesive message. The first part underscores how severe the recession was, as a preemptive defense for why the economy hasn’t turned around faster. The second half argues that America is “coming back,” thanks to job growth over the past year. It’s that part that will prove to be a tough sell. Indeed, it was top Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg who advised the campaign in February that this is the type of message -- saying things are getting better when voters don’t agree -- that polls miserably “and produces disastrous results.”
But Obama’s campaign officials can’t utilize the time-tested “are you better than you were four years ago” message because it doesn’t ring true, so they have to argue things are getting a little better and the administration needs more time. It shows how limited the Obama playbook is this time around—mobilize the base, lambaste the opposition, and hope enough independents will hold their nose and vote for you. It’s hard to believe that Obama’s campaign is confident of victory, as Time’s Mark Halperin reported on Monday. More likely, campaign officials are putting on an awfully good game face in light of what promises to be a very challenging reelection.
This article appears in the May 9, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.