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It's Way Too Early for Democrats to Panic

It's Way Too Early for Democrats to Panic

By Sean Trende - June 22, 2012


I'm increasingly convinced that the Washington press corps suffers from histrionic personality disorder. For much of the first half of 2012, the stories coming out of the nation's capital were generally about the weakness of the Republican presidential field, Mitt Romney's difficulty securing his base, President Obama's burgeoning lead, and the economy finally gaining steam. Conventional wisdom seemed to have congealed around the idea that Obama was an almost-heavy favorite for re-election over the hapless Romney. Intrade scored his re-election odds at upwards of 60 percent.

But over the past several weeks, the storyline has changed dramatically. A bad jobs report, the failed Wisconsin recall effort, polls showing a tight race in Michigan, a fundraising report showing that Romney outraised the president last month, and a terrible presidential gaffe on the economy quickly turned the conventional wisdom on its head. Now news reports focus on Obama’s listless campaign, and the serious challenge he faces from Romney. A front page Washington Post story from Karen Tumulty even suggested that it was time for Democrats to panic.

Should Democrats be concerned? Absolutely. But any panic is grossly premature. To start with, Romney trails the president, albeit narrowly, in the RCP Average. This puts Obama in a better position than Al Gore, who trailed George W. Bush by four points in Gallup in June. It puts him in a better position than Bill Clinton in 1992, who trailed George H.W. Bush by six points in June. It puts him in a better position than Bush 41 in 1988, who trailed Michael Dukakis by nine points in June, and Ronald Reagan, who trailed Jimmy Carter by a pair in 1980.

More importantly, the president’s job approval is holding up fairly well. He currently sports a 47.9 percent rating in the RCP Average. As I’ve noted before, elections with incumbents tend to be referenda on those incumbents, who tend to receive roughly their job approval in the end. Of course, most of the job approval numbers right now are of adults, not likely voters, which will skew them somewhat toward Democrats vis-à-vis the electorate. Still, this suggests that Obama is at the very least within striking distance of the 48 to 49 percent approval he will need among the actual electorate if he is to win re-election.

Even though the economy is not going at full steam ahead, neither is it contracting (at least not yet). It looks as if Europe may hold together long enough that its seemingly inevitable collapse won’t be fully felt here until after the election. And most importantly, people don’t blame the president for the state of the economy. This really is a unique circumstance; we’ve never had a situation of lengthy economic turmoil that clearly began before the incumbent took office and then failed to make substantial progress over the ensuing four years. In other words, the traditional relationships between the economy and a presidential re-election effort might not hold.

None of this is to suggest that the president is in great shape -- an incumbent with a 46.8 percent re-election score is clearly in trouble. I think the 54 percent chance that Intrade gives him right now is overvalued. But I wouldn’t put his odds all that much lower; he probably has about a 48 percent to 50 percent shot at winning right now.

What I think we’re seeing is that Democrats were irrationally exuberant about Obama’s chances in February and March, and we’re now seeing the overcorrection that tends to accompany the popping of any speculative bubble. The good January and February jobs reports were overstated, probably due to warm weather and a seasonal adjustment formula that is skewed by the extreme job losses of late 2008 and early 2009.

Romney’s numbers were clearly depressed as he tried to run in a Tea-Partied GOP, while the president benefited from being able to float above the fray. It was almost inevitable that this race would tighten when Romney became the presumptive nominee. It’s easy to be an armchair quarterback on these matters, but I think the warning signs were present -- and presented by other commentators -- back in February and March.

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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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