Just like the ocean’s tides ebb and flow, the pendulum of conventional wisdom on the way a presidential race is widely perceived swings back and forth. At some points, the conventional wisdom is at variance with the political realities. For a long time, the conventional wisdom seemed to be locked into the view that the fundamental dynamics and extraordinary rhetorical skills that elected Barack Obama as president in 2008 would more or less continue, making him a clear favorite for reelection. Now, conventional wisdom seems to be shifting dramatically: In some minds already, he’s toast.
This election is likely to be a very close one. To suggest that it is unwinnable for Obama is a folly. In the 15 presidential elections going back to 1952, six victories were runaways: 1952 and 1956 (both Eisenhower); 1964 (Johnson); 1972 (Nixon); and 1980 and 1984 (Reagan). Four more were competitive, but not that close at the end: 1988 (George H.W. Bush); 1992 and 1996 (Clinton); and 2008 (Obama). The remaining five, or one-third of elections during that period, ended up being extremely close: 1960 (Kennedy-Nixon); 1968 (Nixon-Humphrey); 1976 (Carter-Ford); 2004 (Bush-Kerry); and of course, the split Electoral College-popular vote decision of the 2000 election (Bush-Gore).
Obama’s Gallup approval numbers for the week of June 11-17 were 46 percent approving and 48 percent disapproving. They are demonstrably better than President Carter’s and President George H.W. Bush’s ratings were at this point. They are pretty close to where President Ford was in mid-June 1976, at 45 percent; he was 2 points higher, at 47 percent, in May of that year. Obama’s usually just a touch behind. He occasionally matches the 48- and 49-percent level where President George W. Bush was at this point, but is nowhere near the five incumbents who won comfortably. Obama’s base is high enough to ensure that losing by a moderate-to-large percentage is extremely unlikely, as the numbers argue strongly that this will be very close.
And “close” means either candidate can win.
Because Obama’s 2008 victory margin—not the win itself, but the 7.3 percentage point margin—was predicated upon unusually high turnout in his base, particularly among young and Latino voters, it’s awfully hard to replicate with this economy and other circumstances. Polling by both Gallup and NBC News/Wall Street Journal show very clearly that conservatives and Republicans are more motivated than liberals and Democrats to vote. And, for that matter, older voters are far more motivated than younger voters and white voters more motivated than Hispanics to vote. The good news for Obama is that the African-American vote, in both share and enthusiasm, looks right on target for him. Overall, the turnout dynamics at this stage look far more like a normal election than the rather extraordinary and unprecedented turnout of four years ago. That doesn’t mean that Obama loses. But the odds of this election turning out like his win four years ago are very low.
In his 2004 run, George W. Bush faced a group of independents and undecided voters who didn’t look particularly receptive to him. Due to state-of-the-art micro-targeting and a well-organized organizational effort, his campaign was able to turn what easily could have been a loss into a very narrow victory. Obama is also trying to use technology and organization to overcome fundamental forces; however, the forces today look even more imposing than the ones that Bush faced eight years ago. Voters were uneasy about the Iraq War; 9/11 and the fight against al-Qaida helped the Bush campaign shift the election from a referendum on the Iraq War to one on terrorism. The campaign tried to move the question to, “Who will keep us safer?” Obama is unlikely to be able to deflect the issue of the economy. His shot is to shift the question to: “Who will look out for us during this economic turmoil?”
Obama saw his job-approval numbers among independents drop from 62 percent in the Gallup Poll for January 2009 to 46 percent in December 2009. They also dropped to 42 percent in December 2010. Last week, his Gallup approval rating among independents was just 41 percent. Among “pure independents,” those who don’t lean toward either party, it was just 34 percent.
The bottom line is that the odds have gotten tougher for Obama. Only those going to their first rodeo, though, would believe that this thing is over. There was a point just after the Democratic convention in 2004 when John Kerry seemed to have an edge over Bush. John McCain even had a nice little bump just after the Republican convention, abruptly terminated by the fall of Lehman Brothers, and, some would say, by the focus on his running mate, Sarah Palin. Beware of the pendulum of conventional wisdom; it may be about to swing too far once again.
This article appears in the June 19, 2012 edition of NJ Daily.