Getting Real About Obama's Chances, Part II

Getting Real About Obama's Chances, Part II

By Sean Trende - April 22, 2011

Yesterday we evaluated three arguments proffered for why Obama is supposedly in great shape for his re-election: history, the economy and polling. Today we will look at three additional arguments: turnout, the Republican field and money.

Argument 4: Changes in Demographics and Turnout Will Aid the Democratic Cause.

There is no doubt that the 2010 election results were driven in part by a drop in Democratic enthusiasm. Thus, the 2012 electorate will doubtless be younger, more Democratic, and less white than the 2010 elections, unless Democratic enthusiasm is hyper-depressed once again.

The relevant question, however, is "how much younger, liberal, diverse and Democratic," will the 2012 electorate be? This is critical, as slight changes in the 2008 electorate -- especially in the racial makeup of the electorate -- can have far-reaching consequences. For example, if the African-American share of the electorate drops to the traditional 11 percent and Republicans win 8 percent of that group's vote -- tying their previous worst showing among African-Americans in history -- Obama's 7.5 percent margin from 2008 would shrink to 4.5 percent.

As I noted in February, taking the 2008 racial breakdowns of the electorate, but giving Republicans the same share of the white vote that they captured in 2010, results in a two-point Obama loss. In other words, turnout alone doesn't get Obama to where he needs to be; he needs to figure out how to win back at least some white voters, or push the Latino and African-American vote shares to even higher levels.

Now, it is true that the 2012 electorate will also be younger and more Democratic than 2010's. But we are repeating ourselves somewhat: The youth vote was more Democratic in large part because it also tended to be more heavily minority. Obama won a stunning 65 percent of the vote among 18-24 year olds, compared to 48 percent among voters above the age of 40: a 17 point gap. But almost half of this gap was attributable to heavier minority representation among younger voters: Obama carried 18-24 year old white voters with only 51 percent of the vote, compared with 41 percent among white voters over the age of forty.

Finally, for all the recent hype about the growing Latino vote, it has actually grown quite slowly. In 2004 it was 8 percent of the electorate, in 2006 it was 8 percent of the electorate and in 2008, after historic registration drives and get-out-the vote efforts in both the Democratic primaries and the general election it was . . . 8 percent of the electorate. In 2010 it was once again 8 percent of the electorate. Will it be higher in 2012? Probably. But it seems highly unlikely to grow at a fast enough rate to suddenly put, say, Texas in play.

Argument 5: The Republican Field Is Too Weak to Win.

Let's be clear up front: Any field where Donald Trump can climb to the top of the polls is lacking sizzle. The GOP field lacks a clear front-runner, and all of the potential nominees have problems.

But we shouldn't get too carried away here. First, as Jay Cost has noted, many of the arguments regarding the weaknesses of the GOP field are arguments that only explain why they could not win the nomination (i.e. Romneycare, Mitch Daniels' "truce"). Someone has to win this thing, and if that someone is Daniels, Jon Huntsman, Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty, they should have someone who is acceptable for the general election. There's always a chance the party could go with a Gingrich or a Palin or even The Donald, but that would be awfully out of character for a party whose nominees over the last 20 years have been John McCain, Bob Dole and a pair of George Bushes.

At the same time, the incessant focus on the GOP field is misplaced. There's a reason that great campaign books come out of elections without incumbents: The Making of the President in 1960, What it Takes in 1988, and the Synoptic Gospels of the 2008 elections: Game Change, Renegade and The Battle For America 2008. Open elections are sexy affairs, inevitably drawing multiple top-drawer candidates who compete on a relatively even playing field to see whose vision America likes better.

Incumbent elections are different. They basically involve a two-step process. In Step One, a voter asks whether they like the job the incumbent is doing. If the answer is "yes," they vote for the incumbent. If the answer is "no," they move to Step Two: Is the alternative acceptable. If the answer is "yes" they vote for the alternative, otherwise they vote for the incumbent or stay home. It is unusual, but not impossible for incumbents to survive if they fail Step One: Harry Reid, Michael Bennet and arguably George W. Bush in 2004 owe wins to challengers who failed Step Two. Right now, as we noted Thursday, Obama isn't doing too well at Step One. There are a few potential Republican nominees that may well fail Step Two, but most seem likely to pass.

Perhaps more importantly, "strong nominee" is a label typically assigned only with hindsight. Herbert Hoover worked behind the scenes to help Franklin Roosevelt's nomination in 1932 because he thought FDR was the easiest candidate beat. Jimmy Carter's advisers hoped that they would draw Ronald Reagan, a two-time presidential loser occupying what they considered the fringe of the Republican Party. Bill Clinton's resume included smoking marijuana (a big deal in 1992), cheating on his wife and dodging the draft. Doubts about Obama's electability persisted until the stock market collapse (few now remember the near-panicked posts from portions of the liberal blogosphere from early September of 2008).

Perhaps the biggest strength of the GOP field, and the key difference between this year and 1996, is that they are all Washington outsiders. Only Michele Bachmann hails from Congress, and she bucked her own party's leadership to deliver a second Republican rebuttal to the president's 2011 State of the Union address. At a time when anti-Washington sentiment is running hot in the country, the GOP nominee will almost certainly be from outside the Beltway.

Moreover, that candidate will be be somewhat insulated from the incipient budget battles. Now, these may battles may never materialize: John Boehner, who seems to understand that he was not elected Prime Minister, gave no maudlin, quasi-State of the Union address after his first 100 days, and seems to be modeling his speakership on the Democrats in 2007, who largely got out of the way while the Bush presidency imploded.

But even if Boehner's own caucus rebels and pulls a "Crazy Ivan" maneuver on either the debt ceiling or the 2011 budget, the Republican presidential contenders will be able to keep their distance. Even the most conservative candidates have danced around the Ryan Roadmap, offering praise for its focus on the debt without a full-throated embrace of the Medicare cuts. Whether this will last is anyone's guess, but regardless, Obama's inevitable attacks on, say, the "Ryan-Huntsman Congress" isn't likely to have the same effect as Clinton's assaults on the "Dole-Gingrich team."

Argument 6: Obama Will Raise a Billion Dollars.

The last argument relates to Obama's fundraising prowess. There is no doubt he will raise a huge amount of money for his re-election effort.

But like Argument 5, the focus here is backwards. Political scientists disagree on the effects of campaign spending, but the general view is that you get diminishing marginal returns past a certain level and, more importantly, the focus should be on challenger fundraising. Indeed, Obama's massive fundraising advantage in 2008, when John McCain limited himself by accepting public funds, didn't result in any massive win. With every conceivable tailwind at his back, he won by eight points, with a map that looked like Clinton's in 1996.

Obama's fundraising will be a sight to behold, but it will likely be well above the point of diminishing returns. Voters already more-or-less know whether they like the job the president is doing, and unless Republican enthusiasm craters between now and 2012, they will be able to get their message out.


Of the six arguments we've examined, all have some merit. The point here isn't to dismiss the possibility of an Obama victory. The economy might improve, Obama's polling numbers are not horrific, the electorate will be more favorable to the Democrats than 2010, and the GOP field has some problems.

The problem is that none of the arguments are as compelling as the Washington conventional wisdom would suggest. Right now the best you can say about Barack Obama's re-election chances is that they hover roughly around 50-50, and are largely dependent on forces outside of his control.

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 Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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