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Can Obama Resist the Forces of Gravity?

Can Obama Resist the Forces of Gravity?

By Sean Trende - October 9, 2012


Throughout this cycle, much more so than in 2010, I've avoided the give-and-take of individual poll reporting. One reason for this is that we have a lot more polls for the presidency than we did for Congress, so each new data point matters less than it did two years ago.

But a bigger reason is that the relative surfeit of polling data makes it much easier to offer “big picture” theories about the election, and those are a lot more useful -- and enjoyable -- to write about than doing a cross-tabs dive into the latest Pew poll.

One theory I’ve had about this election is particularly relevant right now. I call it “Barack Obama vs. gravity.” The basic idea is this: Team Obama has had one overriding goal this cycle -- to keep the president ahead of Mitt Romney in the polls.

The reason is simple: Obama is, and always has been, something of a bandwagon candidate. A major theme in 2008 was always that supporting Obama enabled the voter to be a part of history, encouraging others to join in the process. But for that theme to work, the perception had to be that Obama was, in fact, going to win.

So every time there was a real or potential setback, Team Obama was ready to change the subject. I don't mean this as an insult. Rather, I simply mean it as descriptive of some smart moves by the Obama campaign during the last campaign and, I think, this campaign.

Consider, for example, the president losing the Democratic primary in West Virginia on May 13, 2008, by 40 points. The rollout of John Edwards’ endorsement the next day was clearly meant to change the headlines and to counter the obvious storyline about Obama’s weakness with working-class whites.

Similarly, after the third debate in 2008, Obama’s lead over John McCain shrunk from 8.2 points on Oct. 14 to five points as of Oct. 19. And on Oct. 19, Colin Powell endorsed Obama, reversing that momentum.

We have seen the same strategy at work in 2012 -- though both campaigns have used it to some extent. Consider the following chart:

In particular, look at the bottom chart, which shows Obama’s lead over Romney. I’ve superimposed the major events of the 2012 cycle here. The basic trend line is fairly plain. Over time, the president’s lead gradually deteriorates. When it gets too close, he makes a major play to change the dynamic, pushing the lead back up.

Let’s start at the beginning of February. Mitt Romney has just lost the South Carolina primary, and a good jobs report has helped push Obama to a six-point lead. But over time, gravity takes its toll. At first it is a result of Romney’s opponents dropping out: Santorum at the beginning of April and Gingrich at the beginning of May. This helps Romney solidify his base.

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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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