Obama's prospects worse than they look

Posted: March 07, 2012

RealClearPolitics has President Obama leading Mitt Romney by 4.6 percentage points in its polling average. Bettors at Intrade give the Democrats a 60 percent chance of retaining the White House. And conservative columnist George Will of the Washington Post thinks Republicans should throw in the towel on the presidential race and focus on Congress.

The conventional wisdom has moved substantially in the president's favor in recent weeks, but the underlying circumstances of the election have not. Republicans still have a good shot at winning the presidency.

Start with Obama's poll numbers, which are mediocre. His approval rating has been rising since October, but it's still below 50 percent. More disapprove than approve of his performance on health care and the economy. A Gallup-USA Today poll recently found that among swing-state voters, Romney is actually beating Obama, as is Rick Santorum. Even in state polls that have Obama ahead, his numbers are weak: He's below 46 percent in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Iowa. And almost 60 percent of Americans believe the country is "on the wrong track."

All these numbers could keep improving for Obama if the economy keeps improving. The economy, however, faces considerable risks. An Israeli strike on Iran could send oil prices soaring, and Europe's sovereign-debt crisis may worsen.

Even an improving economy will not be, by historical standards, a strong one. No incumbent has won reelection with unemployment above 7.2 percent since Franklin Roosevelt.

Our expectations about what the race will look like in the fall are also distorted by what's happening now. "Our primary is not much fun to watch. It's pretty messy, and it's pretty bruising," said Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. "Once there's a one-on-one race between our nominee and the president, all of that changes overnight." Republicans will unify, he predicted, "because four more years of Obama is an untenable thought for any conservative."

The likelihood that conservatives would fail to turn out for Romney is overblown. They clearly have serious reservations about him. But come November, they will be choosing between a candidate who favors cutting taxes, repealing Obama's health-care law, and appointing conservative Supreme Court justices, and a candidate who opposes those things. In competitive presidential races, conservatives always turn out for the Republican.

The back-and-forth of the primaries has driven up Romney's "negatives" - the number of voters who have an unfavorable view of him. But some of these voters are conservatives who currently support candidates Romney's campaign has savaged; they will vote for Romney in November. Many of the rest were bound to have a negative opinion of Romney anyway.

Everyone expects a negative campaign on both sides in the fall. The bitter primary may have simply speeded the rise in Romney's negatives. And even with those negatives, and even without the ability to focus on Obama, Romney is only a few points behind the president in the polls.

Sean Trende, the senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics, pointed out last fall that Obama's poll numbers have tended to rise when he is out of the headlines. His recent gain fits the pattern: Republicans have been absorbed with internal battles, and political coverage has been, too. But Obama won't be able to stay invisible in the fall.

Romney isn't a natural political talent, and he has had trouble winning the blue-collar support he will need. But Obama also lacks an easy rapport with working-class voters, and his political skills are overrated.

He may well win reelection, as most incumbents do. But if he is favored to win, he isn't heavily favored. In recent weeks, both E.J. Dionne Jr. of the Washington Post and Albert R. Hunt of Bloomberg View have warned Obama's team against overconfidence. They're right: The more Obama thinks the election is his, the less it will be.


Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review.

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