We’ve gotta wake up,” James Carville wrote in a May 31 fundraising e-mail. “Everywhere I go, people are telling me that ‘Obama has it in the bag.’ Newsflash: nothing is in the bag.” He’s right: Democrats have been overconfident about President Obama’s chances this fall. Only slowly, if at all, is it dawning on them that Mitt Romney poses a serious challenge.
For months now, the polls have suggested that Obama, while not a sure loser, is in trouble. In the Real Clear Politics average of polls, the president has not cracked a 50 percent approval rating so far in 2012. In both its average and Pollster.com’s, the candidates have since the first week of May been consistently less than three points apart.
There are several reasons Romney is giving Obama a tough race.
The primary campaign distorted perceptions of the general-election campaign. It seemed to take forever for Romney to win the Republican nomination, and his poll numbers sank during the long slog. (Except for his “negatives”: the percentage of people who told pollsters they had an unfavorable impression of him. That number rose.) Plenty of coverage suggested that Romney was going to have trouble unifying the party. Republicans grew pessimistic.
But it should have been obvious that these perceptions were dependent on circumstances that were already changing. The primary highlighted Romney’s deficiencies from the point of view of conservatives. In the general election, Republicans were never going to be choosing between Romney and Santorum or Gingrich. They were going to face a choice between Romney and a candidate who favors higher taxes, took health care farther down the road to government control, and will continue to appoint liberal judges as long as he can. On each of these issues Republicans strongly prefer Romney’s position. That is why they quickly consolidated behind him once he wrapped up the nomination.
While Romney has his weaknesses as a candidate, the arduousness of the primary campaign made them look more fatal than they are. The timing of the elections worked against him. Jay Cost, a writer for The Weekly Standard, points out that winning the Florida primary in 2008 gave John McCain the momentum to do well on Super Tuesday. This time around, Romney won Florida, his poll numbers improved, and then . . . and then the next actual primary was held four weeks later, and Super Tuesday a week after that. Momentum dissipated.
Some of Romney’s vulnerabilities in the primary won’t matter much in the general election. His primary opponents had an incentive to use his record of flip-flops to portray him as unconservative and untrustworthy, but Obama can’t simultaneously portray him as a right-wing extremist and a flip-flopper. All signs point to his deploying the right-wing-extremist attack, since it’s scarier.
The country is closely divided. After the 2006 and 2008 elections, some analysts decided that the country now had a natural Democratic majority. In retrospect — and again, this should have been obvious at the time — those seem like abnormally Democratic years (as 2010 seems like an abnormally Republican one).
Even if 2008 had been a happy year for our nation, Republicans would have had to contend with the public’s instinct that it was time for a change after eight years of their party in the White House. But there was also an economic crisis, which hit just weeks before the election. The Republican presidential nominee nonetheless won 46 percent of the vote. Republicans were always likely to do significantly better in 2012, simply because the odds of their facing similarly awful circumstances again were so low.
You can’t make history twice. There’s another reason the Republicans’ 2008 performance was likely to represent a floor for the next election. Strong turnout among voters who were young, black, or both swelled Obama’s totals. Both black voters and young white voters are likely to vote for Obama again, but probably not in the same numbers, because the excitement of voting in the first black president has faded.
Obama didn’t change the map. Because his 2008 victory reached deep into “Republican territory” — that is, he carried seven states that had gone for George W. Bush twice — some analysts thought Obama had made assembling an Electoral College majority harder for the Republicans. But his sweep was a function of a national Democratic wave, not a permanent geographic realignment.
As Sean Trende points out in his book, The Lost Majority, Obama’s winning coalition was actually narrower geographically than Bill Clinton’s. Missouri, which was very recently a swing state, seems now to be a lost cause for the Democrats. And Obama’s hold on the states he carried in 2008 is weak. Florida seems to have become more Republican over the last decade, too. The Democrats have written off Indiana, and are surely ruing their decision to hold their national convention in North Carolina, not least because its state Democratic party is immersed in scandal. Even some states long in the Democratic fold look iffy. Wisconsin, which has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984, seems to be in play. Minnesota last voted for a Republican in 1972, but its Democratic tilt (compared with the national electorate) declined a little in the 2008 election, and a solid Romney victory nationally could well sweep it in.
The economy hasn’t cooperated. We haven’t had a strong recovery, or one that most people trust will last. Democratic optimism about Obama has been tied not only to Romney’s primary struggle but also to a few months of data suggesting the economy was picking up. But we have now had a few months of more recent, ominous data — and the continuing crisis in Europe, or heightened tension in the Middle East, could tip us back into recession.
The president’s political talents are overrated. Obama has no instinctive feel for voters in the middle of the political spectrum, let alone those on the right. He has never had to develop one. Before 2008, he had run one statewide general-election campaign — against Alan Keyes, a fringe candidate from out of state. In 2008, he defeated Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries: a stunning achievement, but one that took place within a liberal universe. In the general election, the economic crisis delivered swing voters to him. George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton won competitive statewide elections before they ran for president, and had to fight for votes in their first presidential races, too. Obama’s political history is closer to that of George H. W. Bush and Gerald Ford, both of whom lost their bids to keep office.
The president is showing his lack of connection to the American center as he flails about for a campaign theme. In the fall he suggested that inequality is the challenge of our time. But Americans aren’t especially concerned about inequality per se — a dominant passion only for the Left. They worry much more about subpar growth. In recent weeks, Obama adviser David Plouffe has said that the president’s campaign will try to portray Romney as a throwback to the 1950s. But most Americans do not interpret our nation’s recent history in terms of liberation from the oppression of that decade, and do not fear that its mores are about to return and engulf us. Again, such emotions are widespread only on the left.
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Romney is still being underestimated. Even James Carville, in a recent op-ed on his “wake up” theme, wrote, “Pathetic is a kind word for Romney and this campaign.” But Romney is a disciplined and intelligent politician, and he may turn out to be a reassuring figure in a time of turbulence.
Every president who has won reelection since Andrew Jackson has gotten a higher percentage in his second election than in his first. This race might be tight until the end, or Romney might pull away for a big victory. But a big Obama win, in line with the historical pattern of reelected presidents, does not seem likely to repeat itself.