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Getting Real About Obama's Chances, Part 1

Getting Real About Obama's Chances, Part 1

By Sean Trende - April 21, 2011

As of this writing, the Intrade futures markets give the Democrats a 62 percent chance of holding the White House in 2012, essentially unchanged from a peak of 63 percent a month ago. Washington conventional wisdom seems to agree. Politico's Roger Simon opined a few days ago that "I don't think Barack Obama will have a hard time defeating his Republican opponent in 2012, barring a financial meltdown or a major foreign crisis." David Brooks similarly asserted recently that "Obama is very likely to be re-elected."

This is the first of a two-part series to provide a more thorough examination of the presidential campaign that is about to unfold. It concludes that the results are far from foreordained. This does not mean that the president will necessarily lose, or that he is even favored to lose. Right now I believe his chances of success are roughly 50-50, with perhaps more upside on the losing end. But none of the arguments for why he should be considered a strong favorite withstand scrutiny.

Most of the pro-Obama analysis rests on six arguments. I will look at three today, and three in Part 2.

Argument 1: We don't usually turn out our presidents.

Pundits love historical factoids. Here is a superficially compelling one: Since the Civil War, only seven incumbents have lost their bid for a second term, while 13 have won. That's roughly a 66 percent win ratio -- suggesting daunting odds for the GOP.

And America almost always gives a party at least eight years in the White House before turning to the other party. Of the seven losing incumbents described above, four were seeking third, fourth, or even fifth consecutive terms for their parties. Of the three who were turned out after their party had held the White House for only four years, only one -- Jimmy Carter -- hails from the 20th century.

But a closer inspection reveals a different picture. For starters, four of the 13 incumbents who won weren't really seeking re-election: Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson had succeeded presidents who died in office, and were actually facing the voters for the first time. Coolidge and Johnson had only been in office roughly a year when their campaigns began. And in 1964, particularly, the electorate simply wasn't about to choose a third U.S. president in a year's time.

And while only seven incumbents have lost in the past 150 years, another four -- Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Truman and LBJ -- either withdrew their names from contention when it became apparent that they were unlikely to win re-election or were rejected outright by their party for re-nomination. If we slightly redefine the scope of our inquiry to look at the success rate of "all presidents who faced or attempted to face the voters a second time," the ratio is even: nine-and-nine.

Argument 2: The economic rebound will carry Obama to victory.

I believe that political scientists put far too great a premium on the economy as a predictive tool for elections. The purely economic-based election models had an abysmal performance in 2010, predicting Democratic losses between 23 and 45 seats.

Nevertheless, the economy is clearly an important factor. And the economic numbers are at best mixed news for the president's re-election. It's obviously too early to say what the numbers will look like in the second and third quarters of 2012. But we can make some rough comparisons to the previous election efforts.

The six incumbents who have successfully stood for re-election since World War II have enjoyed, on average, growth in per capita real disposable income (RDI) of 11.7 percent over the course of their term. The unsuccessful presidents have fared worse -- about 8 percent growth on average.

So far, RDI is up 1.2 percent over the course of the Obama presidency. To hit the 11.7 percent mark over the course of his term, income would have to grow by about 1.4 percent in each of the seven quarters between now and late 2012. Since the 1980s, we've had 24 total quarters where RDI growth was above 1.4 percent.

The short-term future prognosis for RDI is not good: It actually shrunk from January to February of 2011. Moreover, government transfer payments and taxes are an important portion of RDI; they actually account for almost all of the RDI growth over the course of the president's term. But the expiration of the payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits at the end of the year will apply further downward pressure to this measure.

Other economic data suggest that it is at best questionable whether we will enjoy the "v-shaped" recovery President Reagan enjoyed in 1984, or that President Clinton was starting to enjoy in 1996. GDP estimates are presently being revised downward -- the latest estimates for Q1 growth run somewhere between 1.5 percent and 2.5 percent. Even worse, the traditional relationship between job growth and GDP is breaking down, making it even harder for the country to dig out of its jobs hole. The end of quantitative easing in June will probably be accompanied by some softening of the economy and a potential stock market decline. And inflation is beginning to replace jobs as the most important issue in the public's mind, at a time when the Fed has pumped trillions of dollars into the economy and price increases are unlikely to subside.

Ultimately, what we are really trying to do with these statistics is to find a suitable substitute for generalized public sentiment regarding the state of the economy. The most recent Pew poll suggests that a majority of the country currently characterizes the state of the economy as "poor," while only 8 percent classify it as "excellent" or "good." Only 20 percent believe the economy is recovering.

There is still plenty of time for this to turn around, but these sentiments will have to begin to shift soon if the president is going to have a chance at a successful re-election. And while there is a possibility that the president will be graded on a curve, since the recession didn't start on his watch, it isn't being borne out in the polls . . .

Argument 3: Obama is doing well in the polls.

After spiking in January, the presidents' approval ratings have settled back into the mid-to-low 40s. This is within striking distance of the 47 or 48 percent approval a president typically needs in order to win, but it still falls short of that mark.

These early polls have little predictive power for next November. But they do offer a snapshot of today, and they aren't indicative of a dominant president. As I've noted before, this approval rating obscures a much deeper disapproval on policy matters, suggesting that his support is quite soft. We see this again in the Pew poll cited above. The president's approval rating is 47 percent, but his approval rating on the economy is 39 percent, on military action in Libya is 41 percent, and on the budget deficit is 33 percent.

This may be spilling over into head-to-head matchups for 2012. ABC/Washington Post recently found the President leading Mitt Romney by four points among registered voters, while Democratic pollster Democracy Corps found him trailing Romney by two among likely voters. Rasmussen Reports found the president leading Romney by five among likely voters. These aren't horrendous numbers, but they aren't good, either. "Tepid" is the description that's most appropriate.

At the state level, four pollsters recently polled the Florida electorate at roughly the same time. This is as good state as any to poll, since it has been a swing state for the past five elections. If President Obama loses Florida, it becomes very tough (though not impossible) for him to hold the presidency.

Only one pollster -- PPP -- produces somewhat favorable numbers for the president in the state, and PPP uses a unique "voters" screen for now that lets through registered voters who voted in the 2004, 2006 or 2008 elections. The other three use a more traditional "all registered voters" screen, and show him well upside down in his approval rating. Two show him trailing Mitt Romney (he does better against other Republicans).

Again, these numbers are not so dismal that we can declare the Barack Obama is destined to be a one-term president. They do suggest, however, that he is presently in a hole among registered voters in the Sunshine State, and that he has his work cut out for him if he is going to win re-election.

In Part 2 we'll examine three other commonly cited factors: Money, turnout/demographics and the perceived weakness of the Republican field.

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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