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.