The odds of defeating an incumbent president should be slim but they are in fact at least 50/50. Here are some reasons that this is true.
1) Romney is a more experienced and better candidate than he was in 2008. That often happens after a run or two. Nixon was tougher in 1968 than in 1960 in the way that Reagan was wiser in 1980 than in 1968 and 1976, and George H. W. Bush was better in 1988 than in 1980. McCain ran more effectively in the primaries in 2008 than he did in 2000. The Republican primary rough-housing sharpened Romney’s debating skills, and he seems far more comfortable than he was four years ago.
2) The old mantra that at some point the massive $5 trillion borrowing, the fed’s near-zero interest rate policies, and the natural cycle of recovery after a recession would kick in before the election increasingly appears somewhat dubious. The recovery is anemic, and seems stymied by high gas costs, fears over Obamacare, and a new feeling that lots of businesspeople with capital are strangely holding off, either scared of what more of Obama’s statist policies have in store for them, or in anger about being demonized by Obama, or in hopes Romney might win. The net result is that the recovery by November might not be as strong as was thought six months ago.
3) Romney is going to be a lot tougher on Obama than was McCain in 2008. For all the complaints against his moderation by the tea-party base, they will slowly rally to him as he makes arguments against Obama of the sort that McCain was perceived as unable or unwilling to make. So far Romney’s attitude is that he is in the arena where blows come thick and fast, and one can’t whine when being hit or hitting — a view far preferable to McCain’s lectures about what not to say or do in 2008. Left-wing preemptory charges that Romney is “swift-boating” or “going negative” will probably have slight effect on him. Just as Bill Clinton saw that Dukakis in 1988 had wanted to be liked rather than feared and so himself ran a quite different, tough 1992 race, so too Romney knows where McCain’s magnanimity got him in 2008. Romney won’t be liked by the press, knows it, and perhaps now welcomes it.
4) In 2008 Rudy Giuliani’s idea that Obama was out of the mainstream and a Chicago-style community organizer was not pressed in fear of the counter-charges that one was racialist or at least insensitive to the historic Obama candidacy. In 2012, there is a record, not an image or precedent, to vote for or against; and Romney will find it far easier to take down Obama than McCain found in 2008. That Obama did not reinvent the world as promised won’t mean that his supporters will vote for Romney, only that they won’t come out in the numbers or with the money as they did in 2008. There is no margin of error in 2012 and turnout will be everything for Obama.
5) The Republicans seem so far to have a lot more interest in defeating Obama than Democrats do in reelecting him. That enthusiasm level can change; but so far we are not going to see, I think, a lot of moderate Republicans writing about Obama’s sartorial flair and his first-class temperament, or screeds against a Republican incumbent. One meets lots of people who sheepishly confess they voted for Obama in 2008 but learned their lesson, less so those who regret that they voted for McCain and now promise to rectify that.
6) Obama is a great front-runner who can afford to talk of unity and magnanimity, but when behind he seems to revert to churlishness and petulance. The more he references Bush, the “mess” in 2008, tsunamis, and the EU meltdown, the more one wants to ask: When will he ever get a life? Them versus us is not “hope and change.”
7) Ann Romney, whether she is used in a more partisan style or more in the manner of a reticent Laura Bush, is an invaluable asset, both her narrative and her grace — a treasury really that somehow was under-appreciated in 2008 but won’t be in 2012.
8) Obama is becoming repetitive and tiring in his speechifying in a way that Carter did by late summer 1980 and George H. W. Bush did in 1992. Before he gets to the podium, Americans anticipate that he will blame someone for a current problem rather than introducing a positive solution — and they are beginning to get to the further point that they cannot only anticipate the villains of the hour, but the manner in which Obama will weave together the usual straw men, the formulaic “let me perfectly clear.” “make no mistake about it,” and the fat-cat/pay-your-fair share vocabulary. The public finally grows tired of whiners and blamers.
9) Juan Williams and others have made the argument that race explains the disenchantment of the white male working-class voter. I think that is hardly persuasive: Give that clinger voter just a year of 5 percent unemployment, $2-a-gallon gas, 4 percent GDP growth, a balanced budget, and he would gladly vote for Obama. The better point is not that race is a determinant in 2012 but that the charge has lost its currency. The minority of working-class white male voters who voted for Obama in 2008 was vastly higher than the percentage of African-Americans of all classes and both genders who voted for McCain, a moderate Republican who one would have thought might have gotten a larger percentage of the black vote than did George W. Bush. Based on percentages in 2008, I think that one could logically infer that the number of blacks who did not vote Republican as they had once done in the past was larger than the number of white male working-class voters who did not vote Democratic as they had in the past. Playing the race card in 2012 will prove a boomerang, especially if the Sharpton-Jackson nexus turns the Martin case into a reverse O. J. trial, and if Holder or Obama editorialize any more, or revert to the exhausting “stupidly,” “punish our enemies,” “cowards,” “my people,” tropes.
10) It is no longer “cool,” the thing to do, neat, or making a statement to vote for Obama. The 2008 lemming effect is over; no one believes any more that he will lower the seas or wants to believe that he can. Michelle’s lightness/darkness biblical image is hokey not moving. The fading 2008 Obama bumper stickers are no longer proof of one’s noble nature.