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State of the Race, Part 1: Why Obama Wins

State of the Race, Part 1: Why Obama Wins

By Sean Trende - September 19, 2012


With the convention season finally behind us, it is good to stop and take stock of where we stand. This is the first of three parts analyzing of the current state of the presidential race. It begins with an examination of arguments that Obama will win. Tomorrow I will make the case that Romney will win. On Friday, I'll present some closing thoughts.

Overall, I see Obama as a slight favorite. Most analysts seem to think that assessment is, if anything, too bearish for the president. That makes this article a little easier to write than tomorrow’s. A good starting place is probably this piece, which I wrote back in January: "Gingrich and Romney Are 'Unelectable'? So Is Obama."

Its premise was pretty straightforward: Obama’s fundamentals were so weak that he faced an almost impossible task; at the same time, Romney and Gingrich were such terrible candidates that he just might make it happen.

So why have things changed, and why have they changed in Obama’s direction? Let’s go through the factors I examined back then. Remember, I’m writing the “Romney wins” piece tomorrow, so there will be pushback on most of these at that time:

1) Job approval. I wrote that “presidents rarely win many votes of those who disapprove of their performance in office. In other words, Obama probably needs to be pretty close to 50 percent approval on Election Day to secure re-election.” At the time, the president’s job approval was 46.8 percent.

Today, the president’s job approval stands at 49.2 percent. If this is true on Election Day, he’ll have a good chance of winning.

To be sure, we’re on the tail end of a convention bounce, and six of the nine polls in the RCP Average include some data from the weekend immediately following the Democratic convention -- the height of the bounce. So the tendency will probably be for this to come back to Earth some.

But there’s no denying that the president’s job approval has recovered since January overall. That month, he averaged 45.9 percent in the polls. In August, before the Democratic convention, that average was still 48.6 percent. Even if his bounce recedes to that level, he’d still be in pretty good position on Election Day.

2) The economy. In January, the trends in the economy placed it somewhere between 1992 and 1960; it was solidly in the middle of years where incumbent parties lost their grip on the White House. A few days after that piece was published, the January jobs data exploded.

When I re-ran the analysis late last month, Obama’s position had improved a bit. The economy was beginning to look more like 1992, 2004 and 1976, which were very close elections.

The 1992 example -- which this year most resembles -- might offer some hope for Republicans. But you have to take into account Ross Perot’s effect that year. Yes, he drew evenly from George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the exit polls, but that doesn’t mean that he affected the race’s trajectory evenly. First, he drew attention away from Clinton in spring/summer, gave Clinton some time to regroup, and prevented Bush from doing to Clinton what Clinton did to Bob Dole in 1996: launching a pre-emptive carpet-bomb campaign. Second, and perhaps more importantly, as Michael Barone noted in the introduction to the 1994 Almanac of American Politics, the center-right Perot effectively depoliticized the critique of President Bush and enabled the absolute demolition of the latter’s job approval. This was critical to softening the incumbent for the fall.

One other critical point here: President Obama probably gets graded on a curve by the American people when it comes to the economy. They understand that he inherited huge problems, and while they might not be thrilled with the solutions he proposed and the progress he has made, they still give him some benefit of the doubt. In other words, economic metrics may understate his position.

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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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