2012 and Obama

Last Tuesday was interesting over at RealClearPolitics.  One article read “Obama Is Almost Certain To Win Re-Election”, by Peter Beinart at the Daily Beast.  Directly below that, however, another headline claimed “If Election Were Held Today, Obama Would Lose”, by Brit Hume of FOX News.  Many of the other articles posted today address the 2012 Presidential election, with a wide range of possible and predicted outcomes.


Starting with Beinart’s piece, he starts by admitting liberals have lost a lot of the fire they had in 2008, but claims Obama will win, primarily because “incumbents usually win“.  I was amazed to see Breinart make such a claim, and fascinated to observe him concede, tacitly,  that Barack Obama the President was much less impressive than Barack Obama the candidate.  Breinart’s argument basically falls apart if you stare at it for very long, but his claim does make some good points.   Part of it is the idea that Presidents who fail to win a second term often get into trouble in the primaries (Breinart seems to have forgotten someone whose initials are HRC), and demographics will once again be important, but in a way that Breinart cannot seem to bring himself to consider closely.  I will come back to that point in a bit.


Turning to Hume’s piece, it’s also speculative but covers both bets.  After noting Obama’s failure to, well, do his job, Hume concludes that “in 18 months, if unemployment is well down, there has been a deal to curb the deficit and the Mideast is calmed down, he’ll almost certainly win.  Of course, Hume does not explain just how Obama would be able to suddenly get things done now that he was only able to make worse in his first two years. 


It’s always fun to play ‘predict the future’, but the future seldom plays along with what we expect.  I’m old enough, for example, to remember when Democrats assured Republicans in 1976 that it would be a long time before a Republican, let alone a Conservative, would win the White House.  Then Republicans won the next three presidential elections.  By 2004, some Republicans were promising that the Democrats were becoming “irrelevant“, and we know what happened in the next congressional and presidential elections.  It’s hard to even know what each party is up to – almost no one who was not into heavy drinking would ever have predicted that John McCain would claim the GOP nomination in 2008, or that John Kerry would claim the Democrats’ nod in 2004.  And the favorites sometimes fail to live up to the expectations.  Fred Thompson sounded like a great possible candidate last time, but he just had no stamina for a real campaign, while Jon Edwards all but imploded on the other side of the aisle.  Expecting the nominal party leaders to decide who gets the nomination for 2012 would be about as lazy and  foolish as picking all four 1-seeds to make it to the Final Four … but I digress. 


I have to say, that as things stand right now, President Obama is not really in very bad shape.  First off, his job approval in Gallup is about 46%, not great but remarkably stable. 


In comparison, Gallup‘s “positive intensity” ratings give no candidate better than a score of 26, with six more candidates at or above 18.  In pragmatic terms, the 2012 GOP field is behaving a lot like the 2008 GOP field did, and that is not good news for Republicans.


Essentially, Obama is polarized as a candidate, the voting public generally supports him no matter what or has rejected him, no matter what.  This is not uncommon for incumbents, and some have won re-election in just that condition.  Obama’s election strategy is basically just a matter of getting more Democrats than Republicans to turn out, and swaying the Indies or boring them enough to stay home.   


For Republicans, it’s important to learn and recall past lessons, like John McCain in 2008, Bob Dole in 1996, and Tom Dewey in 1944/1948.  We all expected to find ‘another Reagan’ somewhere after the Gipper left the White House, but really … how long did we have to wait for the original Reagan to arrive?  I know W was far from conservative enough for a lot of people on the Right, but seriously, in the last 22 years, hasn’t Dubya been better than anyone else to win the job?  Look, seriously, if he could run again I’d vote for W again, and not just because it would make a lot of liberal heads explode.  Dubs understood the job, and took it seriously.  It’s clear to me that many candidates, in both major parties, neither fully understand the job nor have truly committed to its cost and commitment.   If you have voted in five or more presidential elections, stop and consider how many times you have genuinely been excited by a candidate.  So, you can see the problem.  Obama is not counting on re-election because he will do a great job between now and then, but because he figures the Republicans won’t offer a nominee that voters will find irresistible.  And the evidence suggests he may be right.


There are all kinds of number games we can play to show how the election will be decided, from “battle  state” analyses and ‘prime issue’ trends, but in the end it comes down to demographics and energizing  your base.  After all, no one seriously believes that ten percent of the population decided to switch  political parties from one presidential election to the next one, but large swings of voter support are not  uncommon.  It comes down to people losing confidence in a candidate up for re-election, but more often it comes down to who gets motivated to go vote, and who gets discouraged and stays home.  In close elections, the independents decide the vote, and again, their participation also comes down to making the case for them to care enough to vote.


About 132 million people voted in the 2008 election.  That’s a nice-sounding number, but we have more than 300 million people living here, and over 231 million people of voting age, according to the NEC.


That means almost 100 million people were old enough to vote, but did not.  Gallup says that about 71 percent of voting age people were registered to vote in 2008, meaning that about 164 million people were registered to vote, so in 2008 about 32 million people were actually registered to vote but did not. 


Put in English, that means that the 32 million people who were registered but did not vote could have changed the election results, and the additional 100 million people who were old enough to register to vote but did not certainly would have mattered.  The message is obvious; you have to convince people that their vote matters, and that your cause is right.  Trite but true.


Barack Obama got a lot of support, in the primaries and the general election, on the brand name of  ‘First Black President’.  It was the cool thing to do, the sign of a nuanced mind, but in practical terms it was a one-time trick.  Obama won’t beat Clinton in the 2012 primaries if that’s all he has in his armory.  But let’s be just as clear that he won’t lose to anything that looks like a stunt, either.  I will go out on a limb and say that Sarah Palin – as we know her today – cannot beat Barack Obama in a head-to-head election.  She’s smart enough and probably can do the job, but she has a serious image problem to overcome.  But that’s true for a lot of other candidates, as well.  Blame the media or whatever, there’s no Kennedy or Reagan in the field that I can see.  


The race is just begun, but like it or not, for now everyone is still chasing Obama.


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