Little Room for Error for Obama and Romney
Less than four months until Election Day and the 2012 U.S. presidential race still looks very tight. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney tied at 47 percent each and that concern over the economy remains the driving issue in the election.
The survey also shows most voters are already leaning strongly one way or the other and that leaves a relatively small pool of pure undecided voters left to be swayed between now and November.
The Post-ABC poll found that about two-thirds of those surveyed believe the country is seriously off course, bad news for the president. On the other hand, Mr. Obama scores much better than Romney on the issue of likeability.
Fifty-eight percent of those polled believe the president will win in November, compared to 33 percent who pick Romney. Ninety four percent of Obama supporters believe the president will win and 24 percent of Romney supporters also believe that will be the outcome, while 66 percent of Romney voters think he will emerge victorious.
The latest polls suggest that both major candidates, President Obama and his expected Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, each have some presumed strengths and weaknesses as November draws near. So now is a good time to do a bit of a rundown on both.
First, Barack Obama is an incumbent and incumbent presidents are tough to beat. Since the end of World War II, only two elected presidents have failed to win a second term. Democrat Jimmy Carter lost to Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Republican George H.W. Bush was defeated by Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992. (I’m not including Republican Gerald Ford’s defeat to Carter in 1976 since Ford was not elected president in the first place.)
Obama supporters would be wise to keep in mind that while incumbency has some advantages, incumbent presidents seeking re-election are most vulnerable when voters think the national economy is weak, as they did in the case of the Carter defeat in 1980 and the Bush loss in 1992.
If Mr. Obama is to win a second term this year, he’ll have to find a way to counter the narrative being promoted by the Romney campaign and Republicans generally that when it comes to the economy, Barack Obama is a failed president.
The President’s Electoral College Strategy
Another Obama advantage is the number of ways in which he can piece together the 270 Electoral College votes he needs to win a second term.
Mr. Obama won a big victory over Republican John McCain four years ago, not just in the popular vote (53 to 46 percent), but in the Electoral College tally as well (365-173). The president can lose some states this year that he won in 2008 and still win the election because he appears to have more options in putting together the necessary coalition of states to get to that magic 270 electoral vote number.
Most experts believe the president will have trouble again this year carrying states like Indiana and North Carolina, where voters seem down on his performance and are leaning Republican. But as long as Mr. Obama can hold onto some key battleground states like Colorado, Ohio, Florida and Virginia he should have a slight electoral advantage over Mitt Romney in November. Of course, keeping that advantage over the next few months in the middle of a lagging national economy will be a major challenge for the Obama campaign.
Finally, public opinion polls show the president has a big advantage in likeability over Mitt Romney. Surveys show many voters like the president personally but are disappointed in the results of his policies. That is one reason why the Obama campaign has already spent so much money running negative TV ads against Romney in key battleground states like Virginia and Ohio.
The president is trying to take a page from the re-election playbook of his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. In the 2004 campaign, Bush strategist Karl Rove sought to define Democratic candidate John Kerry in a negative light before voters had a chance to make up their own minds. The strategy was effective in that it put Kerry on the defensive over what was his supposed strength — his military service during the Vietnam War — and that helped Bush prevail in a fairly close election that November.
Adding to this strategy lately are the coordinated Democratic attacks highlighting the fact that Mitt Romney has offshore bank accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere, with the suggestion he is doing so to avoid U.S. taxes. A Romney spokesman says the former Massachusetts governor has been accountable for all his taxes and that his liability is the same as if the fund investments were held in the U.S.
He’s not the incumbent, and that’s a good thing if 2012 turns into a change election, something Mr. Obama benefitted from four years ago. U.S. presidential elections are usually a referendum on the incumbent and if the weak economic news continues or gets worse, voters may be tempted to go “thumbs down” on the president and take a chance with someone new.
The Obama campaign is spending tens of millions of dollars trying to define Mitt Romney before the campaign hits a fever pitch and there is evidence suggesting the negative ads are hurting Romney in some key battleground states like Florida, Ohio and Virginia. However, all of that will be forgotten on Election Day if voters decide that the economy is bad and that Mr. Obama is simply not up to the job of fixing it. The Romney campaign is banking on a majority of independent or swing voters to come to that very conclusion and tilt the election in his favor.
A second Romney advantage appears to be money. The fundraising totals for June showed the Romney camp brought in $106 million, well ahead of the Obama campaign total of $71 million for the month. That makes two straight months that Romney has outraised the president.
Four years ago, Republican John McCain was badly outspent by a Democratic fundraising machine behind Barack Obama that helped him roll up impressive wins not only in key battleground states, but in places Democrats hadn’t won in decades such as Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia.
But this year, the Republican fundraising machine is cranking out the cash and the influence of the so-called Super Pac groups could prove to be hugely helpful to Romney’s efforts in November. The Obama campaign has spent a lot of money lately trying to run down Romney’s record as a businessman and governor, but that effort is burning through available cash. Romney and his allies are stockpiling their money arsenal for later when they are expected to make a late push on voters with a variation of the famous Ronald Reagan line from his 1980 debate with President Jimmy Carter—are you better off now than you were four years ago?
Voter Enthusiasm a Big Factor
Romney’s third advantage will be voter enthusiasm. Republicans are much more excited to get to the polls this year than they were in 2008, primarily because they want to run Mr. Obama out of office. Conservatives may not revere Mitt Romney as a Republican candidate, but they will come out in droves for the chance to deny the president a second term.
Tea Party activists led the way in 2010 with anger over the bank bailouts and the health care law. That helped Republicans win back control of the House of Representatives and pick up seats in the Senate.
The Tea Party activity reached fever pitch two years ago and it may be hard to replicate this year. But President Obama and the Democrats are sure to have an even greater challenge in getting their supporters out to the polls again this year, especially the young college students and minority voters who turned out in 2008, many voting for the first time.
Some of these folks are disappointed in the Obama term so far and will need extra prodding to get out in November. I don’t think many Republicans will need that kind of encouragement. So to some extent, the 2012 election is shaping up as a mobilization election — a get-out-the-voters election — for both parties, with relatively fewer undecided voters in the middle ready to swing one way or the other in the final weeks.