The overhyped political story of the moment is President Obama’s supposed comeback. That story notes that just weeks after his midterm “shellacking” he won congressional approval for a deal on taxes, the New START treaty, and a bill to let gays and lesbians serve openly in the military. But these victories do not have much bearing on whether Obama will be reelected in 2012. Liberals are happier with Obama now that “don’t ask, don’t tell” is history, but they were always going to be with him in 2012. There may not be a voter in America who is going to cast his ballot on the basis of New START. And the tax deal does not fundamentally change the terms of the next presidential election’s economic debate.
None of this is to say that Republicans can rest easy. Quite the contrary: The flaw in the comeback story is that President Obama has never had very far to come back. His job-approval numbers are in, and have never dipped below, the mid-40s. That’s not terrible, especially when you consider the high unemployment rate and the unpopularity of the stimulus and health-care bills. We should also keep in mind the extraordinary power of sitting presidents to set the agenda, frame issues, and take credit for achievements. Incumbents have run in ten of the presidential elections since World War II and won seven of them. At this point, President Obama has to be considered likely to join the winners.
Republicans don’t want to hear this. They tend to think of the Democratic blowouts of 2006 and 2008 as aberrations caused by President Bush’s unconservatism, the financial crisis, and the Iraq War. They see the 2010 election as a return to normality in a center-right country. The Census report at the end of 2010, which confirmed that Republican-leaning states are growing and will gain electoral votes, reinforced this view. Many Democrats implicitly adhere to a mirror-image theory of recent elections according to which the 2006 and 2008 results reflected long-term demographic changes that favor them while the 2010 election was an aberration caused by a bad economy.
Split the difference: 2006 and 2008 were unusually Democratic years and 2010 an unusually Republican one. We don’t know what kind of year 2012 will be, because we don’t know, among other things, how the economy will look to voters in the middle of the year and whether the world will seem more or less threatening. But the educated guesses we can make suggest that winning the presidential race in 2012 is going to be a lot harder for Republicans than winning the state and local races in 2010 was.
In 2010, Republicans needed to persuade the public that it did not want continued liberal governance — that it did not want the Democrats to have a free hand. Voters did not have to believe that Republicans were ready to govern to want them as a check on liberalism. That’s why it did not matter that voters had a negative impression of Republicans. In 2012, though, Republicans will have to persuade Americans that they want Republican governance, and at a time when unpleasant memories of the last bout of Republican governance will still be pretty fresh in voters’ minds.
In 2009 and 2010, liberalism was on the march. Passage of the stimulus and a sweeping health-care law, along with the threatened passage of cap-and-trade, card check, and other liberal priorities, provoked a reaction at the polls among conservatives and independent voters. But the 2010 election ended the march. A large Republican majority in the House guarantees that major new liberal legislation will not pass in the next two years. Conservatives will have less reason to vote, and independents less reason to vote Republican. The intensity of the opposition to the growth of government can be expected to drop.
#page#Republican strategist Ralph Reed draws a parallel to the last time a Democratic president sought reelection with a Republican House. “If the economy rebounds and it looks like Republicans will pick up the Senate, it will get tougher at the presidential level. That hurt us with Clinton in 1996. It was harder to make the case he had to be stopped because in a sense he had already been stopped.”
A Republican House, and the prospect of a unified Republican government in 2013, will meanwhile increase the intensity of opposition to cutting government. Even at the height of public concern about big government in 2010, voters remained strongly opposed to cuts in Medicare and Social Security. If Republican budget-writers propose such cuts — or propose anything that Democrats and the media can characterize that way — they will be in great political peril. Republican voters are older than average. But timid budget cuts may dispirit the tea partiers. If they are so timid that Obama agrees to most of them, he will seem even less problematic to the voters who recoiled from his 2009–10 agenda.
In 2010 Republicans could win without having much to say about how to revive wage growth, what Obamacare should be replaced with, or whether reforms are necessary to cut the cost of higher education. A relatively narrow message about the growth of federal spending was sufficient to carry the day. Changed circumstances mean it probably won’t be enough in 2012.
The Republican presidential nominee will have some freedom to broaden the party message. But that nominee will also have a record, and other attributes, that Obama can mine for attacks. In 2010, Republicans did better in the House elections than in the Senate elections. Perhaps that’s because in lower-profile races the voters were picking the party that best expressed their political mood, while in statewide races with a lot of ad money they were more attentive to the particular foibles of individual candidates.
The presidential race will of course be higher-profile, and more ad-intensive, than any of the congressional races of 2010. Republican pollster David Winston cautions that Republicans in 2012 have to “make this about issues, not personalities.” Democrats, who regard the Republican field as weak, will not oblige.
Finally, there is the question of turnout. Democratic strategist Ed Kilgore points out that while there has long been a difference between the presidential electorate and the midterm electorate — the latter being whiter, older, and more prosperous — that difference has only recently acquired a strongly partisan dimension. The midterm electorate is demographically more likely to vote Republican. So the question, as Kilgore notes, is not whether Obama can get blacks and young whites to vote for him in greater numbers than they voted for Democrats in 2010. It’s how many more of them he can count on.
In 2010, Republicans proved that they could beat Obama so long as he was not on the ballot. But they can’t repeal Obamacare, change the direction of the courts, rein in regulatory agencies, or set foreign policy without actually defeating him.
To win in 2012, Republicans need to hold the states that went for McCain in 2008 and pick up six Obama states: Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, and either Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Pennsylvania. That would be difficult but not impossible. Intrade.com, a betting market, puts the Democrats’ chances of holding the White House at 57 percent. Sounds about right.