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An Early Look at Obama's Re-election Bid

An Early Look at Obama's Re-election Bid

By Sean Trende - February 9, 2011

Coverage of the 2012 elections has recently gone into overdrive, with attention focused largely on two issues: President Obama's standing in the polls and the Electoral College. The two are obviously interrelated. Though it's a bit early to be discussing all of this (there's almost no correlation between a president's standing in the polls at this point and where he ends up in November two years later) it is always useful to examine where things stand today - with the understanding that things may change for the better or for the worse for either party over the next 18 months.

One thing the polling data have confirmed over the last two years is this: President Obama is more popular than his policies. Going back to the earliest days of his presidency, Obama's overall job approval rating has typically been higher than the ratings he's received from voters on most individual issues - particularly on top domestic concerns like the economy, spending, the deficit and health care.

It isn't hard to see why this is so. The president continues to be viewed in the public's eye as a likeable person, a faithful husband and a good father. African American voters and liberal voters continue to adore the president. The historic nature of his presidency drew independent voters to him in 2008, and while they have abandoned him and his party in droves over the last two years over policy issues, they continue to have a certain level of affection for him personally.

Because the president generates so much personal goodwill, then, it isn't clear that his approval rating has the same political effects that other presidents' approval ratings do. Consider the following chart, which plots the percentage of the House caucus lost by the president's party in post-World War II midterm elections against the president's approval rating in the Gallup poll:

The line is just a simple regression line; it shows what percentage of the House caucus we would expect the president's party to lose in a midterm election, given a particular presidential approval rating in the Gallup poll (and vice versa). As we might expect, presidential approval rating and midterm seat loss correlate pretty nicely, as presidential approval explains 48 percent of the variation.

But note that President Obama's approval rating is a significant outlier here. Given his approval rating - which stood at 44 percent in Gallup's Election Day polling, the Democrats probably should have endured more modest losses in the 30-40 seat range, rather than a 63-seat "shellacking."

Or, put the other way, given the size of Democratic losses in 2010, we'd have expected Obama's approval rating to be similar to Harry Truman's in 1946 when his party lost roughly the same percentage of its caucus. Truman's approval rating in the Gallup poll on Election Day was just 32 percent. In addition, his solid base among African Americans and liberals is a blessing and a curse; it sets a floor for him, but because these voters are packed into relatively few congressional districts, it weakens his congressional party.

Only two other presidents have been such serious outliers: Ike and Ford. Ford was an outlier because he was in his honeymoon period, and the midterm election was more of a referendum on the Republican Party of his predecessor than on him. For Ike it was because he had saved the free world (If we were to add FDR's 1942 performance we'd have a similar outlier - 74 percent approval, 16.9 percent of caucus lost - for similar reasons, but George Gallup's polling had a substantial Republican bias at the time making it hard to use measurements of FDR). These three observations wreak havoc on our "best fit" line: after removing these outliers, plus Obama, presidential approval explains 72 percent of the variation here, rather than just 48 percent.

Along these lines, consider the following table. It shows all the post World War II presidents who sought re-election, their final Gallup measurement (Truman is excluded because Gallup famously stopped polling well in advance of the election and missed an intervening surge in his popularity) and their popular vote percentage.

Note that here, Ford is no longer an outlier. After two years in office the election really is a referendum on him; he received a share of the popular vote that was pretty close to his own popularity. Obviously, the Perot candidacy complicates the 1992 and 1996 elections somewhat; distributing Perot's vote equally improves the "fit" for Clinton ‘96, but hurts it for Bush '92.

But look at Ike. Now, to be clear, Ike was never going to get 74 percent of the popular vote. But would it have been impossible for him to get Nixon's 61 percent from 1972, or even Reagan's 59 percent? Obviously the Republican Party was stronger in 1984 (and to some extent in 1972), but part of Eisenhower's appeal was that he rose above partisan politics in a way that Reagan and Nixon didn't.

So the question here is whether Obama ends up an outlier like Ford, whose re-elect eventually matches his approval rating, or whether he ends up an outlier like Ike (or, most likely, FDR), who has an immense amount of personal goodwill built into his approval rating that doesn't translate to politics and that, bizarrely, causes him to underperform. I don't think for a second that Obama's popularity will outstrip his re-election effort by 17 points, but it wouldn't surprise me if the president ran 4 or 5 points behind his popularity, assuming the Republicans don't nominate a radioactive candidate.

What might this mean for the Electoral College map? This is even more difficult to address this far in advance of the election. Chris Cillizza had an interesting recent article on the topic entitled "Obama Could Survive Some Bumps on Road to 2012 Re-election." Cilizza looks at the 2008 results, notes that Obama scored 365 electoral votes in 2008, and concludes that he has room to spare. The article title would be correct for early 2009. But the president has endured many, many bumps since winning his 365 electoral votes. This has weakened him significantly in many states. For example, he won North Carolina and Indiana by a combined 40,000 votes, when the Republican Party was in the midst of a perfect storm. It seems highly unlikely that he would win these states today, especially after the 2010 election results in these states.

Similarly, given the results of 2009 and 2010, Virginia, Ohio and Florida are looking iffy for the president. This is especially true of Florida, where a very weak Republican gubernatorial candidate beat a highly touted Democratic candidate last year, and where a very conservative Republican just missed winning a majority of the vote in the three-way Senate race. These states, plus reapportionment changes, would bring Republicans close to an Electoral College victory.

The Democrats do look strong in the Mountain West. Given the 2010 results, plus President Obama's continued strong showing among liberals and Hispanics, he may be the favorite to hold on in Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. He may even put Arizona in play without John McCain atop the ticket, though that seems less likely. But once again, the president's strength among minorities and liberals giveth and the president's strength with these groups taketh away. The problem comes in the Midwest and Rust Belt, where Democrats were absolutely obliterated in 2010. Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin are highly problematic bets for 2012; flipping Pennsylvania alone would offset Democratic holds in Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado combined. These states are older and whiter than most other states; they are also less susceptible to an Obama turnout surge.

Democrats will doubtless reiterate that the 2012 electorate is unlikely to look like the 2010 electorate. This is true; however the likely Obama surge is built into the above analysis. But consider this: if you take the 2008 turnout levels, but model the white vote to resemble 2010, President Obama would lose, albeit narrowly. Set the Democrats' share of the white vote to halfway between 2008 and 2010, and President Obama would win narrowly.

Even then, recreating the 2008 electorate will be difficult for the Democrats. For one thing, the president is no longer the candidate of change; public anger at the status quo will now be directed at him, rather than Republicans. Also, the historic nature of re-electing the first black president seems much less than that of electing him. In other words, re-energizing casual Democratic voters to the extent that he did in 2008 is tough.

More importantly, he has little control over Republican voters. During the post-convention period, when McCain and Obama were running neck-in-neck in the polls, Republicans claimed to be about as enthusiastic about voting as Democrats. Gallup showed a dramatic drop-off in Republican enthusiasm after the passage of TARP; this coincided with Obama's final lead opening up. The GOP may be similarly unenthused about 2012, but it seems unlikely (again, depending on the nominee). In other words, the GOP doesn't need to be on the positive side of the enthusiasm gap to make 2012 much closer than 2008; it just needs to motivate its own troops to close it.

Barring some unforeseen change in circumstances, like a dramatic weakening in the recovery (or a sudden, massive spurt), this election doesn't look like it will be 2008 or 2010, where the environment was so favorable for one party that it would have been nearly impossible to lose the election. If the economy continues to improve at its current slow pace, both sides will have something to say. The result will probably be a long, tough slog.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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