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.