Winning at football is pretty simple: There’s the offense, the defense, and the special teams. As legendary coach Don James put it while he led the University of Washington Huskies to the 1991 national championship: Win two of those three, and you’ve won the game.
Winning at politics is just as straightforward. The victors in a presidential contest will outperform their rivals in at least two of three categories: the national atmospherics, the state-by-state battle for an Electoral College victory, and the on-the-ground organizing it takes to drive your base to the polls.
In advance of the 2012 elections, Republicans have a clear advantage in atmospherics, while Democrats are besting the GOP in organization. Whichever side is able to claim the state-by-state battle will take the White House.
On a national level, the mood is so sour that any president would be an underdog. President Obama’s approval rating has not topped 50 percent in the Real Clear Politics average since June. He hasn’t been over 50 percent in any survey since June 20; in that same time, his approval rating has dropped below 40 percent in three polls.
A similar number of Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy, the issue likely to decide the 2012 contest. And nearly three-quarters of Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track. (One wouldn’t even want to be an incumbent member of Congress right now; just 31 percent of Americans told pollsters they want their member of Congress reelected, while 49 percent said they want someone new, according to a United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll released this week.)
“The atmospherics are working for the Republicans,” said Alex Gage, a GOP micro-targeting expert. Voters, he said, “are retrospectively making a judgment on the last three and a half years.”
Even as the GOP faces a contentious primary battle, the mood favors Republicans. But that primary fight has forged a nontraditional path to the nomination—one that bypasses traditional organizing in early states and instead soars ahead with national media and televised debates. Few candidates are putting together an organized field team.
That decision can have consequences. Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida, and Nevada—four of the first five nominating contests—are key swing states in November. In 2008, when Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were fighting for the Democratic nomination, Obama was forced to build organizations in the late-primary states such as North Carolina, Indiana, and Virginia. Obama left those organizations in place for the general election, when he won states no Democrat had carried since 1964.
Today, while the GOP fights it out, Obama’s organizing gap is as evident as ever. In fact, his campaign has more staffers on the ground in Iowa than any Republican campaign. “They’ve just decided not to do the grassroots organizing,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said during a briefing with reporters this week. “Their primary, they’re fighting mostly through the media and debates.”
That leaves the state-by-state battle as the critical rubber match. As I’ve mentioned before, Obama’s team has many options as it pursues 270 electoral votes. Messina laid out separate scenarios in which Obama could lose many key states and still hit 270—a Western path to victory, which he said Sens. Michael Bennet and Harry Reid demonstrated with wins in 2010; a Midwest plan, which includes Rust Belt states that wouldn’t be happy with Romney’s opposition to auto-industry bailouts; a Southern plan, which focuses on winning Virginia and North Carolina; and even a Florida plan, which includes the states that John Kerry won in 2004.
Obama’s team has learned from Democratic mistakes of the 1990s, when the party threw all of its resources at a few swing states. “Our goal is to not go back to the Florida and Ohio days in staying up until the middle of the night,” Messina said. “All of our jobs [are] to have as many paths as we can.”
They’ll need them. Recent polls in key swing states such as Pennsylvania and Florida show Obama leading both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, but by narrow margins. Polls taken as recently as last month show Republicans ahead.
There are layers to any presidential contest. The 30,000-foot atmospherics, like the state of the economy and views of the incumbent, are working against Obama. The 10,000-foot battle for a few swing states, in pursuit of 270 electoral votes, is difficult but favors the president. And at the moment, Obama’s team has a big head start on the level closest to the ground, where his organization stands tallest (and, in many states, virtually alone). Republicans will work fast to build their own organization once the general election rolls around, but early organizing pays dividends in the end.
Republicans may be winning the battle to define the race’s atmospherics. But Obama’s team has a big head start in organizational offense and a smaller, yet significant, edge on Electoral College defense. Don James would be proud.
This article appears in the Dec. 15, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.