Why the odds favor Obama re-election

April 13, 2011


Hey, President Obama has formally announced his re-election bid! I’ve added the exclamation mark to help ratchet up the excitement.

It has been a long and difficult slog since Inauguration Day, so I’m going to assume that the looming inevitability of another presidential campaign is about as welcome as the prospect of trace radioactive elements in your milk. Still, attention must be paid. If you’re not up for pondering Obama’s current victory odds, no problem, I’ll do it for you. Here are the seven easy-to-read factors:

l Incumbency. Care to guess how many Democratic presidents have been defeated for a second term in the last 120 years? A grand total of one. That fact alone has prompted Matthew Dowd, the Republican pollster for George W. Bush, to conclude that “the odds heavily favor President Obama.” Incumbents are tough to beat, and this one will be raising and spending roughly $1 billion.

Meanwhile, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center poll reports that 47 percent of Americans favor Obama’s re-election, while 37 percent want someone from the other party; his numbers are virtually identical to Bush’s numbers in April 2003 (the same point in the election calendar) — and way better than Bill Clinton’s numbers in March 1995. Plus, Obama’s job-approval rating is higher than Ronald Reagan’s rating in April 1983. Bush, Clinton, and Reagan all won second terms.

l The economy. Obama-haters see him as a one-termer, a casualty of the Great Recession, in the mode of Jimmy Carter (the only defeated Democrat these last 120 years). But Carter’s economy in 1980 was considerably worse. The big measure that year was the so-called Misery Index — the jobless rate plus the inflation rate equaled 21.9 percent. Obama’s current Misery Index is a mere 10.9 percent, and economists expect it to shrink further. If voters (especially in the critical Rust Belt states) perceive that the economy is improving — and even GOP-friendly economists see the jobless rate dropping below 8 percent by Election Day — Obama is well-poised to benefit.

l Foreign crises. In the immortal words of Donald Rumsfeld, this is the big “unknown unknown.” Perhaps Obama will screw up somewhere just as badly as Carter did when he ordered the ill-fated mission to rescue the American hostages in Iran. Voters remember that kind of visceral failure. Short of that, Obama has to keep a lid on the bad guys abroad and ideally ensure that we are capably fighting no more than several wars at one time.

l Rallying the troops. I’m referring here not to the troops abroad but to the Democratic troops at home. Obama needs to rekindle the ’08 grassroots energy; it may not be so easy the second time around. In his campaign message to the base last week, he offered no soaring rhetoric about hope and change; instead, he said: “We’ve always known that lasting change wouldn’t come quickly or easily. It never does.”

Given the hard realities of governing in polarized Washington, and Obama’s various capitulations (Guantanamo is still open, the GOP is winning on budget cuts), can he stoke fresh enthusiasm among the young, minorities, women, and white liberals — all of whom are needed to offset his ongoing weakness among whites in general?

l The Republicans. It speaks volumes about the sorry state of the GOP that reality TV star Donald Trump can fulminate about the phony birth-certificate issue and wind up, in a new national poll, tied for second place in the 2012 Republican trial heats. It speaks volumes that the top aspirant, Mitt Romney, garners support from only 20 percent of the party electorate. The GOP hasn’t been this leaderless since Wendell Willkie came out of nowhere to win the nomination in 1940.

Plus, thanks to tea party and birther pressure, the eventual nominee may well be too conservative for the independent swing voters. Obama’s vulnerabilities notwithstanding, you can’t beat something with nothing.

l The sleeping giant. That’s the traditional nickname for the Hispanic electorate; for years we’ve tracked its inexorable growth, awaiting proof of its clout. The proof has arrived, courtesy of the new U.S. Census. On the presidential election map, Hispanic voters, by dint of their numbers, are increasingly crucial in such states as Ohio, New Jersey, Florida, Nevada, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, Iowa, Arizona, and Georgia. Obama, buoyed by landslide Hispanic support in 2008, won all those states except the last two.

The Republican candidate, whoever it is, will need to trim Obama’s Hispanic margin, but given the GOP’s woeful track record with minorities, and its frequent anti-immigrant outbursts, I suspect the party will again fare poorly with America’s fastest-growing electorate. If I were counseling the Republicans, I’d suggest tapping Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for the vice-presidential slot (key state, ethnic bonding — a twofer!), but for some reason the GOP has not called me lately for advice.

l Likability. Granted, an election is too important to be a personality contest. But don’t kid yourself, this stuff matters. People liked Reagan back in the day, even when they fundamentally disagreed with his take on issues. People like Obama today, regardless of the issues. All the polls say so; in an Associated Press survey last month, 84 percent of Americans said he was likable (a number so huge that it presumably includes some of the people who think he was born in Kenya or Indonesia).

And Obama’s team is taking full advantage. The campaign announcement video features a North Carolina white guy who says: “I don’t agree with Obama on everything. But I respect him and I trust him.” That message is aimed straight at the independent swing voters who often weigh likability as much as the issues. Indeed, Dowd, the aforementioned Bush pollster, says the GOP needs a “new brand” candidate who can neutralize Obama’s charisma. Is Romney more likable? Is Tim Pawlenty? Trump and his hair?

So, in the absence of the unforeseeable, we can probably expect Obama to prevail, perhaps eking it out by a margin akin to Bush’s squeaker in 2004 — the narrowest reelection win since 1916, and a likely template for the polarized politics of the 21st century. The result, whatever it is, will naturally solve nothing; we’ll all keep arguing. Yet somehow we’ll muddle through. We always do.

— Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His email is dpolman@phillynews.com.


Paul R Getto 7 years, 1 month ago

The election will be bloody, mean and conducted at least in part in the name of a loving skygod. Obama will win in a close contest because the R's cannot stop their theocrats from messing things up. Should be a wild ride. At least the TV stations will make money, which is probably the most important thing.

Flap Doodle 7 years, 1 month ago

The big-money folks that installed the current regime will go all out to get another 4 years for their puppet.

jafs 7 years, 1 month ago

And the big money folks opposed will do the same for his opponent.

cato_the_elder 7 years, 1 month ago

Polman is full of it as always, with the exception of his reference to the Republicans' lack of a viable candidate. That should have been number one on his list of reasons for predicting Obama's re-election. In fact, it should have been his only reason.

Obama has made a complete mess of it, including to many of those on the left. Whether he's "liked" or not, he's certainly not respected enough to be re-elected against a good Republican candidate. This will be particularly true if the economy remains stagnant, which is what most in the know are predicting. The problem is that there isn't a good Republican candidate, at least for now. A good number of Republicans appear to feel this way, much to their chagrin.

If Obama's re-elected and the Republicans gain solid control of both houses of Congress with only a minimal number of RINOs in their midst, the resulting stalemate might be just what the country needs.

canyon_wren 7 years, 1 month ago

I agree with you, Cato. The "appropriate" Republican candidates are too smart to run, and those that are willing are ridiculous, with the exception of Jon Huntsman, and I am afraid the country will not elect a Mormon, regardless of how qualified he is. I hope this columnist is woefully mistaken as far as his "facts" are concerned. (Defender--you needn't bother to respond--I am well-versed in your capacity for ridicule!)

jaywalker 7 years, 1 month ago

Have to agree with cato. Polman was spot on with his assessment of the rudderless Republican party. Bachmann, Trump, and Palin? Seriously? Bachmann's record is eerily similar to the President's - state Senate for a few years, on the hill for 3 ....... and suddenly she's presidential material???! For the love....... Palin and Trump don't even garner comment. In actuality, it sounds like the start of a joke: "Donald Trump and Sarah Palin walk into the RNC....... " followed by a rim shot.

And even with a viable candidate I believe it would still take some unknown, yet to occur, historic event that might thwart a second term, and that's still a big "if"."

Mike Ford 7 years, 1 month ago

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Kirk Larson 7 years, 1 month ago

You mean as long as we keep recovering from one of the deepest economic holes our country has ever been in...

bad_dog 7 years, 1 month ago

Obama is giving GE tax breaks or GE is utilizing the existing tax code? Hmm, difficult question to analyze & resolve. Good thing we have an '80's Scottish rock band to assist us.

Personally, I prefer Steely Dan for resolving my political/financial conundrums.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 1 month ago

Republicans' best hope in the next election is to complete the trashing of the economy begun under BushCo (and the "austerity" measures, AKA, the rich say we're broke, so the poor must pay, have things headed the right direction there.)

Kirk Larson 7 years, 1 month ago

With recovery looming and the current republican field of candidates nuttier than a Snickers bar, the republicans best hope is to continue their policy of driving the economy into the dirt thereby increasing the misery index and hoping for another Carter-like defeat.

MyName 7 years, 1 month ago

lol fail troll has to respond to his own comments to get even a nibble. It's okay fail troller: maybe your super obsessed left-wing counterpart is a day sleeper!

rolo2383 7 years, 1 month ago

Obama's and the libs have been in charge for the last two plus years. The economy started to tank when the libs took over the house in 2006. Bush spent too much but Obama is spending this country into the stone age. This is all on the libs. If Obama gets a 2nd turn we'll end up just like Greece. I hope the GOP elects someone better than McCain this time around.

Kirk Larson 7 years, 1 month ago

You haven't been paying attention. The economy started to tank with the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Between them and two wars (one unnecessary) the deficit and debt balooned. The tax cuts were supposed to create lots of jobs and grow the economy. Didn't happen. In fact, real wages stagnated for families and jobs were exported. The rich got richer and the rest got nothing. Lax oversight from the SEC and a "business can do whatever it wants" attitude from the Bush administration and republican legislature led to the financial debacle that was 2008. This mess was the republicans fault and given the opportunity they will ruin everything again.

50YearResident 7 years, 1 month ago

Elections can be bought. Bush proved that with his brother helping. Obamba still has the Billionaire Ophra in his back pocket. She got him elected the first time. We will have to wait and see if she can pull it off twice. So much for free elections.

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