Can Obama Resist the Forces of Gravity?

By Sean Trende - October 9, 2012

‹‹Previous Page |1 | 2 |

For Obama, this can no longer be used as an excuse after the beginning of May, and by the middle of June, Karen Tumulty is writing columns asking if it is time for Democrats to panic.

In the week ending June 18, we begin to see a spike in ad spending in swing states from the Obama campaign. This is the beginning of the “Bain Capital” assault. It pays some dividends, as the president captures a four-point lead just as the second spending push comes at the beginning of July.

But over time, gravity again takes over. By the end of July we are once more moving toward a tie. At the end of July and in early August, the White House begins hammering Romney over his tax returns; Harry Reid claims that the GOP nominee failed to pay any taxes in several years; and Priorities USA launches the ad with the steelworker implying that Romney was at least partially responsible for his wife’s death.

These conversations dominate early August, so much so that Team Romney feels obligated to make its vice presidential pick early lest it completely loses control of the narrative. This reverses the trajectory of the race, and by the end of the Republican National Convention, Romney has worked himself into a tie with the president. Of course, this is promptly reversed by the quite successful DNC.

But over time, we see gravity reassert itself. After the Benghazi attacks of Sept. 11, the president’s lead again begins to deteriorate. By the weekend, the tracking polls are suggesting some major movement against Obama. Gallup is moving toward a tie, and indeed might have shown the president trailing over the weekend of the 14th.

Then on Sept. 17, the “47 percent” video drops. Obama moves out to a four-point lead (note that something else big happens around that time). But once again, gravity takes over. Even before the first debate, Obama has seen the polls begin to close. Of course, the debate hasn’t helped him any since.

Why is it so important to the Obama camp that he stay ahead this time? After all, the “make history” argument is less compelling this time than it was in 2008. Also, remember that political science tells us that individual events don’t matter that much in the long run -- it’s the fundamentals that dictate the result to a much larger degree.

I don’t really disagree with any of this -- indeed the insight from political science that fundamentals take over is the key assumption behind my theory. But I do think there is a degree to which Team Obama has successfully (and quite frankly brilliantly) created a “virtuous cycle” this election. There are three ways in which this is the case.

First, the bandwagon effect affects fundraising. Once you move outside the partisan core, people like to back winners. This is especially true of the business community. By assiduously cultivating its front-runner status, the Obama campaign has aided its ability to press future arguments.

Second, maintaining a lead allows greater leeway in the arguments it can make. Something like the “cancer ad” from August looks hard-hitting from a campaign that is leading (and I certainly include candidate super PACs as part of the “campaign”), but would probably be described as “desperate” from one that is losing.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it affects press portrayals of the candidates and party enthusiasm. This is the most important thing here: I still think the default expectation here has been that Obama should be losing. “Defying gravity” is hardly an original motif for this election, after all.

So the view that Obama is going to lose can -- or at least could have -- quickly become the conventional wisdom. If that happens, we would end up with a vicious cycle that looks something like this: The Democratic base becomes downtrodden, its enthusiasm falls, the right’s enthusiasm skyrockets, the likely-voter screens skew more Republican, and Obama falls even further behind in the polls. Instead, we have a campaign where everyone marvels at Obama's constant lead, further adding to the mythos surrounding his supposed inability to lose.

This is why the Oct. 3 debate really might have marked an important, structural change point in the campaign.  Now, I’m emphatically not arguing that Obama can’t win the election after his poor performance (and Romney's strong performance) at that face-off.  In fact, I still regard him as the slight favorite. But we’ve seen exactly the combination Team Obama worked assiduously to avoid: Romney re-consolidating his base, Republican enthusiasm skyrocketing, and the president’s aura of invulnerability pierced.

This leaves two important, unknown questions. First, to where does gravity pull Obama? Is the mean to which he regresses a narrow lead? Or is it a significant loss? Political science models are split, with the average model showing an Obama lead of a few 10ths of a point. We don't yet really know where gravity naturally drags the president to, although the bottoms he reached over the summer suggest that it would be at least a small Romney lead with likely voters. 

Second, what else, if anything, does Team Obama have to push back against gravity? The 47 percent video seems like something that would normally be held until later in the campaign. Is there anything else it can use to push back against the natural trajectory of the race? We’ll find out, and if we get a few more polls like the Pew poll, I suspect that we will find out sooner rather than later. 

‹‹Previous Page |1 | 2 |

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.

Mitt Romney for Mayor
Carl M. Cannon · November 16, 2014
A President Who Is Hearing Things
Richard Benedetto · November 12, 2014
Bret Stephens' Call for Robust U.S. Foreign Policy
Peter Berkowitz · November 16, 2014

Latest On Twitter