It's Absurd to Think Obama Has Already Won

By David Paul Kuhn - March 4, 2012

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George Will posits that the GOP should focus on congressional elections. But challenging an incumbent can reduce his coattails. Modern presidential races can rarely be divorced from Senate contests. Since FDR, no incumbent has also won re-election while losing more than two Senate seats. Republicans need four seats to win back the upper chamber. Republicans will make a race of 2012 because they must.

We cannot yet know how much of Obama’s 2008 coalition will return to him in this race. His historic gains in 2008 came after the market crash. Those gains were gone as the 2010 midterm election neared. Obama suffered historic losses among whites and independents. He's gained some ground since. It’s still a long way back.

The demographics of head-to-head polls offer no answers, until roughly autumn, for the same reason we can’t see the future in these early surveys. But Republicans should hardly feel "consigned to defeat." Obama won 52 percent of independents in 2008. Only 42 percent of them currently approve of him, according to Gallup.

Yet elections are choices. Obama has hit his stride. He’s lofty, confident and optimistic of late. “I placed my bet on the American worker,” Obama told union members this past week. “I believed in you.”

Obama’s stride stands out against the unusually flawed opposition. Even Bob Dole had an American tale to tell. He survived on the true battlefield and came up the “hard way.” Dole was the small town boy gone big.

Romney’s story is privileged boy gone very big. And it’s high finance big. That "big," like big government, is the wrong sort of big today. Romney’s own words have only made his story harder to pitch. Yet none of Romney’s weaknesses are electorally fatal. The alternative will assure that the conservative base backs him.

Pundits often talk of Romney’s sullied image. The public’s perception of him -- thanks to his gaffes -- didn’t have to be that bad. Americans’ unfavorable view of Romney rose to 47 percent in the mid-February Gallup poll, along with other surveys. But his image remains malleable. Bill Clinton had an unfavorable rating of 49 percent in April and June 1992. Negative views of Clinton lessened as Election Day neared. Meanwhile, the share of Americans with a favorable view of him shifted from 41 percent in June to 54 percent in early November 1992.

Republicans will now try Clinton’s role. They will seek to pin the recession’s costs on the incumbent. Democrats take heart in an improving public outlook. The share of Americans who believe the nation is on the wrong track has decreased about 10 points in multiple polls. But about six in 10 Americans still say they are dissatisfied with the direction of the country. That’s the same share as one year ago. So these numbers can improve. But they can also worsen even without a dramatic event. 

Political scientist James Campbell, an expert on election forecasting, calculates that the weakest third-year economic growth (change in GDP adjusted for inflation) since 1952 for winning incumbents has been 2.5 percent (Clinton in 1996 and Bush in 2004). The economy grew 1.7 percent in Obama’s third year.

As Campbell put it: “Despite their protracted and bitter nomination contest in the Republican Party, the overall outlook on the 2012 election at this time indicates a very tight election with only a slight edge to President Obama.”

Most election experts would agree. Incumbent presidents have won nearly three-quarters of their re-election campaigns since the Civil War. The economy is trending in the right direction, providing gas prices level off. The electoral map favors Democrats. Obama has a route around losing Florida and Ohio, however difficult that would prove. Republicans cannot lose either state and win.

Romney is the least flawed option for Republicans. But his flaws are significant enough to matter. They did for Kerry. Yet he still made a race of it. Shift 60,000 votes in Ohio and it would have been President Kerry. 

George Will once said with typical wit, “The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised.” His latest column may betray the pessimist in him. It would be foolish for Republicans to depend on that pleasant surprise. But it’s also foolish to think the GOP has already lost. 

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David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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