The State Of The Race 2012 – Part I

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.

Predicting The GOP Sweep Of 2010

LIke most political junkies, I’ve been keeping a close eye on the polls—and the polls are showing that this Tuesday will be a very bad day for the Democratic Party. Here are some quick-and-dirty observations on what to expect tomorrow:

The House

This is looking to be a year much like 1994, when the GOP took 54 House seats. The averages are all showing around a 50 seat gain for the GOP this year. But this is not a typical mid-term election. This is a potential wave election, and there are races that are normally not even remotely competitive that suddenly are down to the wire.

Take a race in my own backyard – the 8th District in Minnesota. Incumbent Jim Oberstar has been in Congress since the Cretaceous Period, and usually gets well over 60% of the vote. But this year, he’s running dead-even with this Republican challenger, Chip Cravaack. This same basic scenario is taking place across the country—the 17th District of Illinois where Phil Hare may well lose, the 1st District of Maine where Chellie Pingree is in trouble, the 3rd District in Nevada where Dina Titus is down by 10 points according to a recent Mason/Dixon poll. It’s one thing for a few vulnerable incumbents to be taken down in a midterm election—but this year features a whole slew of Democrats who are not in good shape.

I’m predicting a gain of about 55 GOP seats—one more than 1994. And that’s just going by the polls. My gut says that the polls may be understating GOP gains. Nate Silver of The New York Times gives 5 reasons why the “super wave” scenario could be right. I’m not willing to go out on a limb and say that this will be that kind of electoral tsunami—but it’s well within the range of possibility.

The Senate

My head says that a GOP takeover of the Senate is unlikely—but my gut says that it’s possible. There are a few races that are sure-fire GOP takeovers. In order for the GOP to take the Senate, they need to pick up a total of 10 seats and secure all their seats. At this moment, there are no GOP seats likely to flip. Republican candidates are virtually assured wins in North Dakota, Indiana, and Arkansas. (3). Based on the polls, Sharron Angle will narrowly defeat Harry Reid in Nevada. (4). Pat Toomey looks to have secured a decent lead in Pennsylvania. (5). Colorado is going to be close, but it looks like Ken Buck will pull out a win. (6). In a normal year, Russ Feingold should be safe. This year, a virtual unknown rode from an op-ed on health care to the U.S. Senate. That gives Wisconsin to the GOP—which seems amazing, but the polls are clear. (7). That leaves the GOP with another three seats to take the Senate.

Illinois is close, but it seems like Mark Kirk has what it takes to win, especially in a GOP year like this. That gives the GOP a total of 8 seats.

Delaware is not a pickup opportunity. Christine O’Donnell won’t even get close, even if she doesn’t get utterly blown out. Castle would have easily won. Same with Connecticut: Linda McMahon has the money, but she just can’t close the sale, even against a highly problematic Democratic candidate. California is proving to be another disappointment. For all of Carly Fiorina’s money, she can’t seem to pull ahead of Boxer. While a Fiorina win is not impossible, it seems highly unlikely. California has become a Democratic stronghold. The sensible people have already left.

So where can the GOP get those next two seats? Watch for West Virginia first. If the GOP takes the West Virginia race, that will be a sign of a huge night for the GOP. Gov. Joe Manchin was expected to walk away with the race—but GOP challenger John Raese has made this a close race. If Raese can pull off a win, that will put the GOP well on track to retake the Senate.

The next race to watch is on the other end of the country. Dino Rossi has run his share of close races in Washington, but has always seemed to fall just short. But this year may well be different. If this year will really see a major GOP sweep, Rossi may be that last vote that gives Republicans control of the Senate.

The Eastern Seaboard will be a good bellwether for the state of the race. If Pat Toomey wins decisively in Pennsylvania, and Raese wins in West Virginia then it will be a very good night for the GOP. If Manchin wins in West Virginia, the Democrats will probably retain the Senate.

My guess is the GOP win a total of 8 seats: ND, AR, IN, PA, IL, CO, WI, and NV. But WV is a wildcard: the polls give a slight edge to the Democrats, but this political season seems more likely to create an upset than others.

The Lowdown

Every poll is showing this to be a major GOP year. There are years that confound the polls, but the evidence that there will be a massive pro-Democrat groundswell that will counter the GOP momentum is lacking. If the polls are to be confounded, it’s more likely in under-predicting the GOP’s gains.

Iran In The Flames Of Revolution

Right now, the people of Iran are engaged in a struggle against tyranny. The Ahmadinejad regime, flagrantly stealing an election, is now on the razor’s edge as hundreds of thousands take the streets to protest the regime and call for democratic reform.

Michael J. Totten, already a veteran observer of Middle Eastern affairs has some trenchant commentary on the brewing revolution in Iran. He calls the Iranian regime “an enemy of the entire world.” That’s no hyperbole: the regime in Tehran is illegitimate and oppressive. The Iranian people deserve better. They deserve to have a government that exists for the betterment of the people, not a government that keeps them impoverished and isolated from the rest of the world.

This revolution is being carried live on Twitter, as that seems to be the most reliable communications method for the Iranian people right now. What is amazing about this revolution is that it is the first Web 2.0 revolution. Social networking sites like Twitter, YouTube, and others are serving as avenues for communication and coordination, and brave Iranian dissidents are breaking through the regime’s efforts to stifle their voices.

This is a fight for the future of Iran. The Ahmadinejad/Khameini regime can only survive by force, they have lost the Iranian people. This will end in one of two ways: in a new Iran, or in blood.

I pray that this ends with a new and free Iran. I wish the Iranian people strength in these coming days, and I stand in solidarity with the people of Iran.

The Ahmadinejad regime must go. As the cry goes out in Tehran—Allahu akbar! Death to dictators!.

Iranian Protesters in Azadi Square

Jim Crow This Isn’t…

Mitch Berg notes Rep. Keith Ellison’s support for an anti-voter ID bill. As usual, there’s the comparisons to requiring a voter ID to “poll taxes” and the like. Such comparisons are an insult to people’s intelligence. So long as voter ID requirements are uniformly enforced there’s absolutely no reason why such rules should not be in place. You have to have an ID to drive, to get on a plane, and to do many other common tasks. There’s no reason to not have photo IDs for voter registration.

Opposition to voter ID laws are less about principle than they are about politics: by keeping voting requirements lax it’s a lot easier to pull electoral shenanigans. Pulling the race card is just a way of polarizing the debate even more. The fact that Rep. Ellison would support such an odious and unsupportable contention demonstrates his lack of personal character and his willingness to take the party line even when he should no better.