The dust has settled from the contentious GOP primary battle, and it looks like Mitt Romney will be the GOP’s 2012 nominee. It’s now on to the general election, where the future of Barack Obama’s Presidency will be tested.
Even though polling this far out is of limited usefulness, it does give us some idea of how the race could turn out in seven months. There are certain factors and historical data that can give us some idea of where this race will go. But elections are shaped by current events rather than past history—in September 2008, John McCain was briefly ahead of Obama until Sarah Palin flamed out and McCain’s bizarre campaign suspension eliminated his momentum through the end of the race. In 2000, George W. Bush was looking to beat Al Gore by a substantial margin—until DWI allegations put him on the defensive and cost him votes, resulting in one of the closest races in American history and a popular vote loss. We have no idea what may happen in 2012 that could have a profound impact on the race.
But, with those caveats in mind, we can start to see the shape of the race as it stands now, and what it means for President Obama and Governor Romney:
This Race Will Be A Referendum
First, this is a race between an incumbent President and a challenger – which means that the 2012 election will largely be a referendum on Barack Obama. (Joe Klein’s arguments notwithstanding.) In general, an incumbent President either stands or falls based on his performance in office. If the American electorate is generally happy with the performance of a President, he’ll be reelected. If they are not, and the other side puts up a credible challenger, that President will lose.
That dynamic appears most clearly in the President’s approval ratings on a state-by-state basis. An incumbent President’s approval ratings are a good predictor of whether they will be reelected or not. As it stands right now, President Obama’s approval rating is at 47% in the RealClearPolitics polling composite. He’s slightly underwater with his disapproval rating at 48%. For an incumbent, that’s a danger zone—not fatal, but not where an incumbent President wants to be. As a point of comparison, President Bush was at 52% approval in mid-April 2004.
As we dig down to the state level, this becomes more important. Traditionally, an incumbent with approval rating over 50% is regarded as “safe” and one with an approval rating under 50% is regarded as “in trouble.” Political prognosticator Ronald Brownstein, writing in the National Journal, argues that 47% is the real “tipping point”, and if a President’s approval rating is below 47%, then he’s in real trouble.
So, we can assume that if President Obama is over 50% approval in a state, he’s likely to win that state’s electoral votes. On the other hand, if he’s at 45% or below, he’s not going to win that state unless his approval rating changes dramatically. If he’s at 47% or less, that state would lean towards the Romney, and if Obama’s approval rating is over 47%, the state would lean towards Obama.
Obama’s Electoral Battlefield
Gallup performed state by state polling in 2011 that gives some contours to where Obama stands in each state. It isn’t pretty for Obama. He is above 50% in only a few states. If we use the 47% approval rating as a guidepost, Obama is cruising towards a huge loss in the Electoral College. He would lose 215 to 323, an electoral blowout. Crucially, he’d lose the key states that he needs to hold to win: namely Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, and Iowa. He’d also lose Oregon, a state that has tended to be Democratic, but only by a close margin.
Obviously, Obama losing Oregon seems like a rather distant proposition, and Gallup’s numbers are fairly old, and were taken before the GOP race had settled. But, what this does show is that the race is far from over: Obama’s approval rating on a national and a state-by-state basis indicates a much tighter race than 2008.
It’s The Economy, Stupid
The biggest factor in this race will be the economy. Unemployment is trending downward, but the results are mixed at best. But, it’s hard to judge just what effect the unemployment rate really has an election—electoral data doesn’t give us much to go on in predicting how unemployment will effect the race. It’s true that no President since FDR has won reelection with more than 7.2% unemployment, but that by itself does’t give us much to go on. The sample set is simply too small.
But subjective feelings will matter. If in the fall of 2012 people really do feel that the economy is getting better, they’ll be more inclined to reelect the President. If they feel that they are no better off than they were in 2008, they’ll be more inclined to get rid of him. The data on Obama’s economic record spells trouble for Obama—high gas prices are hurting his rating on economic issues, and the electorate doesn’t really seem to think that the economy is truly turning a corner.
That’s why the data points will only tell you so much. In the 1992 election the economy was recovering, but George H.W. Bush still lost to Bill Clinton (thanks in large part to Ross Perot). People don’t respond to economic data, they respond to their subjective feelings. Unfortunately, that’s hard to measure and doesn’t follow the raw data—it could well be that unemployment drifts down by November 2012, but that doesn’t mean that President Obama is a lock for re-election.
The Hope And Change Is Gone
There is one more subjective factor worthy of mention: this isn’t 2008. In 2008, Obama could run as a cypher, a blank slate upon which voters could project their hopes and dreams. His campaign of “hope” and “change” and his ability to position himself as a post-partisan, post-racial figure helped him appeal to independents and even some Republicans. He ran less on his record (scant as it was), and more on a set of vague promises. But four years later, that is no longer an option for the President. He has to run on his record now, and his policies from from bailouts to Obamacare have been more divisive than uniting. The 2010 election could also be considered a referendum on his performance, and that should give the Obama team pause.
Obama simply doesn’t have the option of running as the Obama of 2008—but that doesn’t mean that he can’t reinvent himself into a form that’s palatable to enough independents to get reelected. But that also means that the unprecedented wave of support that lifted him up in 2008 may not materialize this time: in 2008 Barack Obama was the Next Big Thing, the great figure that would bring the country together and wipe away the supposed sins of the Bush years. Now, he’s just another politician. The Democrats may have a deep reserve of support to draw upon, but they’ve always had that. At this time, it doesn’t seem like Obama can rekindle the magic of 2008. It’s safe to assume that even if Obama is re-elected, it won’t be by the same margins he got four years ago.
Where Do We Go From Here?
So, with all those factors in play, what can we say about the current state of the race? The honest answer is that it’s looking close, but we don’t know much more than that. It’s too early to say that Obama is a shoe-in for re-election or Romney should start thinking about Cabinet appointments. This is anyone’s game, and with such partisan polarization, it’s very likely that it will stay a tight race for most (if not all) of the race.
That being said, the structural factors give a slight edge to Romney. Obama has a weak approval rating for an incumbent President. The economy may recover, but it’s questionable whether it would be enough. Obama’s state-by-state approval ratings show weakness in key swing states. But that slight edge is very slight indeed, and could disappear if trends change.
As the race continues other factors will start emerging—the most important of which may be the discipline and effectiveness of Romney’s campaign. The McCain campaign was horrendously mismanaged, botching McCain’s “suspension” of his campaign, mishandling Sarah Palin, and was generally weak and ineffective. So far Romney has shown great discipline and messaging—but also a tendency to put his foot in his mouth. If you want to know how the dynamics of the race may play out, watch how well organized the Romney camp is over the next few months. Because when it gets down to the post-Labor Day crunch time, campaign discipline can make or break a political campaign.