A failure in a complex system almost always involves a combination of factors that feed on one another to cause a breakdown. As we watch Japan’s tragic nuclear-plant situation, I am reminded of the near-catastrophe at Three Mile Island in 1979 and what the postcrisis analysis showed.
Recall that the Three Mile Island nuclear plant contained sophisticated safety measures and safeguards, and engineers considered a catastrophic event highly unlikely. But a reactor meltdown nearly did happen. Why? Because of a mixture of engineering flaws, human error, and bad luck.
The same is true for much of what happens in life—whether it’s an airplane crash, a disaster in a far-off corner of the globe, a medical error, or even a personal relationship gone bad. The loss we suffer in divorce or at the end of a relationship usually doesn’t result from any one thing going wrong, but from a series of underlying issues that the couple never adequately addressed. These “hidden” issues can be inside our partner’s heart or history, or they can be in our own. Some event or series of things happens that allows us to see one another and ourselves more clearly. And a loss is the result.
This phenomenon happens in politics as well. Which brings us to the 2012 presidential contest. Contrary to what many pundits and partisans might have you believe, a Democratic president rarely loses a reelection race. Only once in the past 120 years has a president from that party who sought a second term lost. And that was Jimmy Carter in 1980. Thus, the odds heavily favor President Obama if he decides to run again—and all signs point that he will.
So what combination of factors in this complex system of politics must come together to cause a catastrophe for Obama politically that would result in his defeat?
(VIDEO: Obama Could be Hard to Beat in 2012.)
Only one Democratic president has lost a reelection bid.
I see three, and all have to be in place and reinforce each other for Obama to lose. First, the economy in 2012 has to be either stagnant or in decline in the 10 or so key electoral states (especially the ones in the Midwest) as he heads into the election. This would mean that the economy is creating very few net jobs in 2012 and that prices (including food and gas) are still rising.
Second, no new major international crisis arises that causes people to rally behind Obama because of his competent handling of it. And I emphasize the words “new,” “major,” and “competent.” Afghanistan and Iraq devolving again into a problem will not help Obama, and actually may hurt him because our country has basically moved on from the situation in both places.
Third, a Republican nominee has to emerge who is charismatic; is a very good communicator; is in touch with the country’s economic and social needs; and is a new brand of GOP leader whom many younger voters can connect with. Think of what it took in 1980 to defeat the Democratic incumbent—Ronald Reagan and crises galore.
All three factors must converge for Obama to lose, and two of them are needed to drive his job approval down to a place, as I have written before, that makes it difficult for him to win. As one can see, these three elements don’t include how much money the Democratic National Committee and Obama have at their disposal; how much cash the Republican National Committee or the Republican nominee raises; the quality of each campaign staff; the legislative machinations of Congress; or the use of modern technology in the campaigns (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.). Those are all tactical factors that, ultimately, will have little influence on whether Obama wins or loses.
Two of these factors—the economy and an international crisis—are basically out of the GOP’s hands (in many ways, they are out of the Obama campaign’s control as well). Republicans should only be concerned with nominating the candidate who can give them a shot at winning if the two other factors are in place. And note that I didn’t add longtime political office-holding to the qualifications. Experience is nice, but it isn’t necessary in this environment.
Understanding the factors that could cost Obama the election allows us to not get distracted by the much-hashed-over details that matter little, such as money and technology. Focusing on what’s really important is a very good lesson for politics—and life.
This article appears in the April 2, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.