May 23, 2012
Recent national and state-by-state polls by a variety of reputable polling firms indicate a tightening race between a controversial incumbent president and his challenger from Massachusetts, just as they did around this time in 2004.
Then, as now, electoral prognosticators believed the outcome of the race would hinge on results from a few key states. And the 2012 opposition party, as it did in 2004, will likely nominate an establishment-backed “consensus” candidate, someone who "will do" as the nominee but who doesn’t quite pass the enthusiasm test with the party base in the same waydid in 1992 or did in 1980, the last two times an incumbent U.S. president was defeated in his re-election bid.
As we all know, incumbent Presidentwas re-elected in 2004, but only by 120,000 or so votes in Ohio. Had prevailed in the Buckeye State that year, he would have joined Reagan and Clinton in toppling an incumbent. But Kerry’s bid came up short, and there was a lot of post-mortem dissection of where his campaign went wrong. Bar room pundits, as well as those paid to talk or write before they went out for drinks, agreed that Kerry lost because so much of his message appeared to be about running against Bush and not on behalf of his own vision for the country.
Yes, there was Kerry’s lackadaisical response time when the “swiftboating” of his honorable military record began, but, in general, he failed to rise above being seen as an anti-Bush challenger, and that cost him the election. Unlike Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, who both exuded optimism and a kind of everyman charm, Kerry came across as both dour and a bit aloof. As much as he was despised by so many American voters, on balance, Bush wasn’t hated by enough people to defeat him at the ballot box.
Bush’s favorability rating was at 53 percent in the last poll taken before the 2004 contest, meaning at least 53 percent of voters viewed him neutrally or better going into the voting booth. Historically, the president’s approval rating has been the most reliable measurement for predicting re-election prospects. When it is above 50 percent, the opposition party challenger does not unseat the incumbent. This has held true for at least every U.S. presidential election since 1932, possibly longer.
As of May 23, Obama’s aggregate favorability rating from April 11 to May 15 as measured by Real Clear Politics was 51.8 percent. His unfavorable rating was 43.4, a positive difference of 8.2 percent.
Romney’s favorable rating, however, was only at 39.9 percent, while his unfavorable was at 41.3 percent. This is an improvement from where Romney was in March, when he was still battling former Pennsylvania Sen.for the GOP nod, but it can’t be encouraging for the Romney camp that Obama has a double-digit lead in favorability.
At this point in the campaign, despite the tightening numbers, Obama seems to be in the driver’s seat. Unless Kerry can challenge his inner Reagan or Clinton -- or at least a truly likeable version of Willard– he appears doomed to fail. It’s important to remember that Bush’s favorability numbers dropped to 47 percent about three weeks before the 2004 election, but he still recovered in time to win. So unless Obama takes a big dive while Romney soars to heights as yet unattained, historical indicators are pointing toward Obama’s re-election.
Variables in the campaign
There are, as always, many variables. One such variable revolves around the fact that for the first time since former President Teddy Roosevelt ran on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912, the 2012 U.S. presidential field features a truly qualified third party candidate in former New Mexico Gov., someone who fits the exciting new leader mode much more readily than Romney.
If Libertarian nominee Johnson gains traction –- he’s currently polling between 6 and 9 percent nationally – we could see a different result than any statistics might or might not be pointing to right now. It’s a long shot, but as Johnson’s Let Me Speak campaign continues to grow, he could conceivably wedge his way into the 2012 presidential debates by reaching the 15 percent level in national polls. With his name on all 50 states’ ballots this November, he could be the ultimate game-changer in a way that no statistical model can predict. If Johnson doesn’t make the debates, however, Obama’s re-election remains in the realm of the highly probable.
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SOURCES & RESOURCES:
First Read: Economic pessimism is back, msnbc.com, May 23, 2012
Gary Johnson could take presidential race by surprise, FOX News, May 12, 2012
Romney’s Next Big Crisis, FOX News, March 29, 2012
2012 Republicans risk repeating John Kerry’s 2004 mistakes, Dec. 29, 2011, U.S. News & World Report
Bush’s approval rating slipping, USA Today, Oct. 11, 2004
Poll: Advantage Bush as election nears, ABC News, Sept. 9, 2004
Additional sources linked to in text.