Obama Likely Will Lose in 2012
If one examines the history of previous presidential elections it becomes obvious that the most likely outcome next November is the defeat of President Obama in his campaign for reelection. In fact, historical trends point towards a blowout.
Let's begin with the obvious: the economy. In the last century there have been seventeen times where an incumbent president has sought reelection. Twelve of those campaigns have been successful and five unsuccessful. The defeated presidents -- George Bush in 1992, Jimmy Carter in 1980, Gerald Ford in 1976, Herbert Hoover in 1932, and William Howard Taft in 1912 -- share a number of common traits.
First -- four of the five faced a serious challenge for re-nomination. Bush faced off against Pat Buchanan, Carter against Ted Kennedy and Jerry Brown, Ford against Ronald Reagan, and Taft against Theodore Roosevelt. In fact, if we expand our sample to include the three presidents who desired to be reelected but ultimately declined to run -- Wilson in 1920, Truman in 1952, and Johnson in 1968 -- we see a very clear pattern emerge: no president who has ever faced a serious challenge to his re-nomination by his party has been reelected. The emergence of a primary challenger to President Obama would, therefore, change his odds of reelection from low to practically zero.
Second -- every president who was defeated presided over an economy that was either emerging from a recession or, in the case of Hoover, in a deep depression. This is an important point. It was not necessary for the economy to be contracting in order for economic troubles to bring about the defeat of a president. In fact, in the case of George HW Bush the economy had actually begun to grow fairly strongly. Bush, however, was unable to shake the perception that the economy continued to lag.
This is important to consider in the case of President Obama because of where we are in the calendar. Improved economic statistics next fall will not be enough to save a failing presidency. He needs things to improve now when every indication is that they're getting worse.
Third, every president in this group has been -- fairly or unfairly -- seen as a fairly weak and ineffectual chief executive out of touch with the most pressing concerns of the people. Even if George HW Bush was hailed for his foreign policy leadership (and though he now seems certain to join John Adams in being cited by historians as a successful one-term president) he was seen in 1992 as being helpless in the face of a public worried by a poor economy. Jimmy Carter was humiliated by Iranian mullahs and looked absurd telling the American people to accept an era of limits while wearing a sweater on televison. Gerald Ford -- the one president in this group who could have been reelected had a few thousand votes gone the other way -- was hobbled by a hostile media and ultimately undone by the combination of a divided party, the lingering effects of Watergate, a stagnant economy, and his own gaffes. Hoover, of course, entered office hailed as a great 20th-century technocrat and humanitarian who would engineer solutions to the nation's problems but seemed lost in the face of the Depression. Taft got himself stuck in a White House bath tub and seemed pale and listless in the face of vigorous Theodore Roosevelt and dull when compared to the cold, ruthless, academic mind of Woodrow Wilson.
I do not believe that, at this point, even the president's most ardent defenders would attempt to make the case that he has been a particularly strong leader. Time and time again -- whether on the stimulus, the budget, health care, the oil spill, Libya, the debt limit, or practically any other subject you can name -- he's sought to pass the buck to others while heckling in petulant and partisan tones from the sidelines. His speeches, once described as the equal of Abraham Lincoln's, are increasingly revealed as the absurd mix of Sir Humphreyesque dissembling and cheap demagoguery that they always were.
Even without a primary challenge -- which I regard as a serious possibility -- Obama still appears, given the combination of economic weakness and poor leadership, to be headed towards a likely defeat. The last president to be reelected in the immediate aftermath of a prolonged recession was Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. There was a time, perhaps, where Obama could have tapped the tremendous well of public affection he controlled in order to overcome such challenges, but in the rapidly moving public arena of the 21st century that time has long since passed. The man is the political equivalent of MySpace.
As I see it, at this point Obama has no hope of being reelected on the backs of his record, his personality, or historical trends. Lacking any real record of accomplishment to bring his voters out to the polls, he has only one strategy open to him: he must attack.
If we look beyond the presidency, to the records of unpopular governors who managed to get themselves reelected, we see a clear model for the Obama campaign's hopes in the 2002 campaign of California Governor Gray Davis (forgetting, for the moment, what happened next). Davis, knowing that he was certain to be defeated by popular former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, intervened in the Republican primary -- running attack ads against Riordan in an effort to secure the nomination of the less-electable Bill Simon. The other thing which might -- barely -- save Obama is a third-party candidate. Frankly, he might need both in order to pull it off. If you begin to look at it seriously, the electoral math is daunting.
We'll begin with the 2008 results adjusted for the post-Census reapportionment. I think we can all agree that this is a baseline -- the chances that Obama will win more electoral votes than he did three years ago is zero. Then we'll begin with what I think are fairly obvious adjustments -- we'll give the Republicans back the electoral vote they lost in Nebraska along with Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia -- traditionally Republican states that he carried last time through a special magic the like of which we are not likely to see again.
Let's work from this base of 219 electoral votes and assume that the following states are potential battlegrounds in 2012: Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Florida. We'll throw in Maine and New Jersey as stretch states as well. This gives the Republican nominee an almost absurd number of paths to the White House:
Perhaps the most obvious one, in that it resembles the 2000 and 2004 battlefields most heavily, is that a Republican could win by taking just Florida, Ohio, and Nevada from that list of states.
Or, even, they could tie it -- and win in a Republican-controlled House -- by taking Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin from the rust belt and Nevada in the West.
Alternatively, they could win without taking a single rust-belt state by winning in Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Florida, and New Hampshire.
Another odd-looking way of doing it would be to take Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada, and Oregon.
More simply, working from this base, Obama has to take 2/3 of the electoral votes in battleground states -- a tall order even for ordinary times.
As a betting man (I'm an Intrade fan), my best projection would see a generic Republican candidate closing in on four hundred electoral votes against Obama. Given the way that the trends of history weigh against him -- and given how very human an executive he has proven in office -- the primary tasks that rest upon Republicans in the days ahead are ensuring the nomination of an electable candidate and avoiding any attempts as sabotage via some quixotic third-party quest.