The 2012 Presidential Election Will Be Won or Lost in the Middle
The odds of President Obama being re-elected are much higher than the odds of him being elected in 2008. Don't take anything for granted, because this battle won't be easy.
The 2012 presidential election promises to be a real humdinger. Speaking broadly, political pundits tell us that it will focus on the economy (things like jobs, taxes, and spending) and that it will be brutal. Political insiders put a finer point on it. For instance, Chris Lehane, who helped guide Al Gore's failed 2000 campaign for the presidency, said, "It's going to be extremely different, with much more hand-to-hand combat, from one foxhole to another, targeted to key states." Terry Holt, a Republican consultant, said, "You can expect a very negative campaign. In 2008, Barack Obama was peddling hope and change. Now he's peddling fear and poverty."
Tuesday's election results prove that both Lehane and Holt were on the right track. The "Personhood Amendment" failed in Mississippi, and Ohioans rejected limits on collective bargaining "which would have limited the bargaining abilities of 350,000 unionized public workers." But those issues are far from settled. Abortion opponents are pursuing "life-at-fertilization ballot initiatives" in six other states, and collective bargaining for public employees remains a hot topic in states across the fruited plain. The 2012 presidential election will help to resolve those and other issues.
Demonstrating how muddy the political waters are right now, a few days ago, Colorado voters rejected tax hikes for education. Colorado is a pivotal "swing state," and both political parties are anxious to claim its nine electoral votes. By clobbering Proposition 13 almost 2-to-1, Colorado voters sent a message about taxation that was loud and clear. Prior to the vote, Stateline called Proposition 13 "the nation's most high-profile tax measure" and said that "the outcome is likely to be viewed as a barometer of attitudes toward the tough fiscal choices states have ahead." After the vote, The Denver Post called Colorado "a killing field for tax measures." It's becoming obvious that voters are fed up with profligate government spending and needless taxation to support questionable and marginal programs.
John Avlon, a senior columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, said that in Tuesday's election, "swing voters asserted their independence" by "repudiating Republican ideological overreach in key votes but denying Democrats clear-cut victories heading into 2012." Michael Barone, a columnist for The Washington Examiner, called attention to the fact that "the same Ohio voters ... who voted 61% against [Governor] Kasich's public employee union restrictions also voted 66% for Issue 3, which purported to shield Ohioans from any mandate to buy health insurance. This was a clear repudiation of Obamacare, and about half the folks that the unions turned out voted against Obamacare."
Avlon and Barone are correct. Voters in one state after another are throwing off their party mantles and making up their own minds. The 2012 presidential election will address a wide range of economic and social issues, but the thing that sets it apart is the fact that it will determine where we stand as a nation on issues that have heretofore been dominated almost exclusively by political purists on the far left and far right.
Stated simply, at long last, voters are engaged in the debate. That means liberals and conservatives will have to duke it out to determine which group holds sway over the middle. Voters will be asked to decide whether the United States is going to continue on a path that leads to socialism or if our nation will return to its roots and reward individual initiative and effort.
Judging by what we've seen so far, the answer will be a combination of the two. Voters don't want the United States to become a European-style socialist country; neither do they want it to be a pure laissez-faire capitalist state. Dogmatists on the left and right had better pay attention, because voters are in no mood for politics as usual.
President Obama and his ardent supporters reside on the far left of the political spectrum -- so far left that they have to hide their true proclivities. They know that the general public won't accept the president's ideas this time around if he presents them from his liberal perch, so he's slowly and methodically gravitating to the center in hopes of losing as few voters in the middle as possible while retaining his leftist base.
Don't expect Obama 2.0 to closely resemble Obama 1.0. This time around, he'll be more circumspect. He'll present himself as a man of the people who sees both sides of critical issues, but his agenda will remain the same. Piece by piece, little by little, he'll present parts of his plan, believing that voters won't notice his maneuvering to the left. It's like the bullfrog: if you toss a bullfrog into boiling water, he will jump out and save himself because he has strong legs and quick reflexes, but if you place him in cold water and heat it up slowly, he will eventually die because he doesn't realize that the water is getting hotter.
The president will use that approach because it works. History teaches us that voters adjust slowly to the world that politicians fashion, and they do it without making much of a fuss since gradual changes, although offensive to some, seem minor to most. But President Obama has an advantage in 2012 that he didn't have in 2008. He holds the reins of power, and he'll use tax dollars to buy off vocal critics. Whoever the president's opponent turns out to be had better beware, because conservative dogma will fail in 2012 just as surely as liberal dogma will.
Fortunately for the GOP, after three years in office, President Obama can't run in 2012 on abstract promises about hope and change. He has a performance record, and it's a millstone around his neck, but it will mean nothing if Republicans nominate a conservative purist. That's what the results in Colorado, Ohio, and Mississippi tell us. The 2012 presidential election will be won or lost in the middle, where people can be persuaded by facts. That's what the GOP nominee must deliver.
In September, President Obama said, "I just have to remind people that here's one thing I know for certain: the odds of me being reelected are much higher than the odds of me being elected in the first place." He was absolutely right. Don't take anything for granted, because this battle won't be easy.
Neil Snyder is a chaired professor emeritus at the University of Virginia. His blog, SnyderTalk.com, is posted daily. His latest book is titled If You Voted for Obama in 2008 to Prove You're Not a Racist, You Need to Vote for Someone Else in 2012 to Prove You're Not an Idiot.