But First They Must Shore Up Core Supporters
No question about it, the 2012 presidential election looks to be close. The first priority for both major party candidates (President Obama and, we presume, Mitt Romney) is to make sure their partisans get out and vote in November. In order to compete for the White House, you’ve got to have your party’s base behind you, and that means maximizing turnout among Democratic and Republican loyalists.
In that sense, the 2012 matchup is starting to resemble the 2004 showdown between the incumbent, President George W. Bush, and his Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.
The Obama campaign seems to be well aware of the 2004 Bush playbook that first and foremost emphasized a strong turnout from Republicans and independents who lean Republican. Part of this was an acknowledgement that in 2000 the Bush campaign did not do as well as they had hoped with conservative turnout, especially evangelical Christians.
Some of the evangelical Christians were most likely turned off by the last-minute revelation that Mr. Bush had been arrested in 1976 for driving under the influence near his parent’s summer home in Maine. So in 2004, Karl Rove and the Bush campaign were determined to boost evangelical Christian turnout and they were successful.
Once the party bases are secure, the battle shifts to the political center and the competition to win over independent, centrist or moderate voters who tend to fluctuate between the major parties during presidential election years. There seems to be some debate this year among the experts as to how big a group of persuadable voters there will be come November.
Like George W. Bush before him, President Obama is seen by Republicans especially as a polarizing political figure who has set the country on the wrong course in terms of both the economy and health care and who must now be denied a second term in office. Under this scenario, most people will decide they are either pro-Obama or anti-Obama well before the election, leaving a relatively small group of persuadable or undecided voters for either candidate to win over.
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On the other hand, the Gallup polling organization recently found that about 40 percent of U.S. voters now consider themselves independents. Linda Killian, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, wrote in the Washington Post Outlook section that in the past four years, more than 2 million Americans have left the two major parties to register as independents, making them a prime target for both campaigns in the months ahead.
Recent polls show the president and Romney virtually tied with independent voters, so you know the competition will only get more intense as we head toward Election Day.
Democrats won independent voters by a huge margin in 2006, helping them win control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. In 2008, Barack Obama won independents by an eight percentage point margin over John McCain. But Democrats hit a brick wall two years ago when Republicans routed them among independents by 19 points, helping them cruise to a majority in the House and picking up seats in the Senate.
Of the 40 percent of independent voters this year, probably half generally lean toward one party or the other in any given election. So we can expect the Republican-leaners to favor Romney in November and that means the president will have to do better among the remaining independents that tend to be truly unaffiliated with either major party.
Independent voters tend to be more concerned with economic issues than polarizing social debates like abortion or gay marriage. They also tend to want both parties come together, especially in Congress, and find common ground to get things done. I would expect the Obama campaign to focus on bipartisan solutions to problems in pitching their argument to this group. The Romney camp will keep the focus on the economy, the high unemployment rate and the need for business growth, all areas they see as an advantage for them.
The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests that this year’s race will be close right up through November. The president has a slight lead over Romney, 49 to 46 percent. Both men register 47 percent support on handling the economy. President Obama has an eight point edge over Romney when it comes to understanding people’s economic problems, and a 13 percent bulge over Romney as the one with “better personal character” to be president.
But Romney has an advantage when the question becomes essentially whether people are better off now than they were four years ago. Thirty percent in the latest poll say they are worse off than when Mr. Obama came into office in 2009, while only 16 percent say they are better off.
Based on his economic record, President Obama may have a steep climb to win over independents. But the president seems to have a bit of an advantage among swing voters in the 12 states most likely to swing one way or the other in November — crucial battleground states like Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Colorado.
If the president can maintain his advantage with independent voters in these states, he’ll probably get re-elected. If Romney makes serious inroads, then Mr. Obama’s prospects for another four years in office will look doubtful.