Writing for the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, William Galston surveys the demographic and political landscape. He expresses alarm about President Barack Obama’s re-election chances: “If the election pitting Obama against the strongest potential Republican nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, were held tomorrow, the president would probably lose.”
Romney is the strongest possible nominee, but, as Galston demonstrates, even with Obama’s weaknesses, pitfalls await.
In the first place, a year is a long time in politics. The unemployment rate could decline dramatically. Obama could do the smart thing and focus his re-election effort on the Midwestern states that have decided presidential contests for more than 50 years, or the Republicans could “commit creedal suicide by nominating a presidential candidate outside the mainstream or unqualified for the office.”
There is no question that Obama is vulnerable. He is the definition of vulnerable. His overall approval rating stood at 43 percent in November — higher than one might expect given the dismal state of the economy, but it is still well below what an incumbent seeking a second term requires. The president has lost support among all segments of the population. He earned a crushing majority (66 percent) of voters ages 18 to 29 in 2008. Today, only 48 percent support him. Sixty-seven percent of Hispanic voters supported him then, compared with 51 percent now.
The president has lost ground among unmarried voters (a Democratic demographic), those with a high school degree or less, those with some college and those with college degrees. Only voters with post-graduate degrees continue to support the president, though barely — which tells you a lot about the value of education in America. Obama is underwater with moderates, and this is crucial — because they decide elections — with independents. Fifty-two percent of self-described independents voted for Obama in 2008, whereas only 39 percent support him today.
The president also loses the intensity battle. Of Republicans, 56 percent say they are more enthusiastic than usual about the election, compared with just 43 percent of Democrats. Only 21 percent of the electorate believes that the country is headed in the right direction, and a mere 15 percent say they are better off now than when Obama took office. Thirty-five percent say they are worse off.
In light of the above, some Republicans seem to have concluded that the party could nominate a ham sandwich and still defeat Obama. That, to put it mildly, is overconfident.
Consider that while Obama has suffered politically because of the poor economy, Republicans are even less trusted. Only 9 percent of voters approve of the job Congress (partly controlled by Republicans) is doing. Further, a whopping 69 percent say that the policies favored by congressional Republicans benefit the rich. Only 15 percent say that Republican policies are aimed at benefiting all groups equally.
The electorate at large, in contrast to Republican primary voters, has not concluded that a free market, limited government approach to the nation’s problems is the solution. And the president will do everything possible to obscure the arguments about why the economy in limping under his leadership.
He won’t want anyone to hear, for example, about the recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, which concludes that “policy uncertainty” coming out of Washington has had a depressing effect on small-business expansion and capital investment. He will encourage voters to continue to blame former President George W. Bush for the nation’s economic doldrums, which a sobering 51 percent continue to do.
The economy is the chief problem on voters’ minds. But a year is a long time. President Obama is amassing a huge war chest for the 2012 race — thanks to those graduate degree holders. He may not be able to govern successfully, but he can campaign well. If only for himself — his efforts on behalf of Jon Corzine, Martha Coakley, Creigh Deeds and congressional Democrats in 2010 having failed spectacularly.
And while Obama cannot sell hope and change this time, he can sell fear and loathing. The data Galston assembled reminds us that there are pre-existing Republican stereotypes in voters’ minds that Obama can play. To escape the noose the president is preparing, the Republican nominee must, above all, be able to make the case for growth — and to convince independents and moderates that Republican reforms would benefit everyone, not just those at the top.