We are slightly more than 21 months away from the 2012 presidential election. The election in 2012 will be not a simple referendum on Barack Obama (for which an approval score is a proxy), but a choice between two candidates. While many potential GOP candidates are exploring a run, it is not possible at this point to even select a favorite from the bunch, since the field is so uncertain, and some candidates designated by some pundits as second-tier would diminish the prospects of others considered as first-tier if they ran. An example of this would be if Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin both ran, or if Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence both ran.
If the GOP candidate who emerges is the strongest general election nominee, the odds on President Obama's reelection are very different from if the GOP nominee is popular within the party but has limited appeal to the over 60% of voters who are not Republicans. It is not at all surprising that President Obama has made direct and indirect appeals to independent voters with his actions and speeches since the November rout, when independent voters broke sharply towards the GOP. While enthusiasm from the conservative base or the liberal base is critical for turnout and grassroots activism, most elections are won by candidates who have broad electoral appeal.
In an article in American Thinker, Paul Kengor made the case that President Obama is practically assured of victory in 2012 since his approval ratings seem to have a floor of 40%. In fact, Obama's approval number is now 10% higher -- just over 50% in an average of the many surveys that track the approval score.
Republicans should be so lucky as to run against an incumbent with only a 40% approval number. If that is where Obama's approval number is in November 2012, which I think highly unlikely, then I am certain that he will be defeated. In the 2010 midterms, the GOP candidates for the U.S House won by 6% nationwide over the Democratic candidates for the U.S House, or by 53% to 47% in the two-party vote. When Obama won the White House in 2008, he won the popular vote by 7.2% (52.9% to 45.7%) over John McCain. In other words, a decisive Electoral College victory for Obama (365-173, or more than 2 to 1) came from only a 7% popular vote margin. A decisive win in the U.S House for Republicans in 2010 (242-193 seats, or 55.6% of seats to 44.4% of seats for the Democrats) came from only a 6% nationwide popular vote margin.
Incumbent presidents win more often than not for reelection. In the last fifty years, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush were all elected twice. On the other hand, Carter and George H.W. Bush were defeated for reelection, and Lyndon B. Johnson chose not to run after a poor start in the 1968 primaries. Incumbent presidents lose far more often for reelection than incumbent senators or incumbent House members. Even in the 2010 election, when many incumbents were beaten, only about 15% of House seats changed hands from one party to the other.
That said, incumbent presidents have real advantages -- the power of the office to make news, national name recognition, far better fundraising prospects (with no need to raise or spend for a primary), and the ability to tack toward the center for a general election run right from the beginning of the race rather than pivot after a nomination is sewn up, as is usually the case for a challenger. In the case of a Democratic incumbent, there is also a friendlier mainstream media to provide the equivalent of hundreds of millions in free advertising that is delivered as "news."
Events shape elections. No one could have predicted the shooting rampage in Tucson, which enabled the president to serve as a national healer for a week and which seemed to take away some of the energy and combativeness of the new GOP majority in Congress. President Obama is betting that a solid economic recovery, faster GDP growth, and lower unemployment levels will take voters' minds off soaring annual deficits and total national debt levels, the continuing housing slump, and higher inflation, particularly for food and energy prices. In essence, Obama is betting that the latest stimulus, passed by the lame duck session of the prior Congress, will work better than the far larger stimulus passed in February 2009.
But if Americans continue to behave more conservatively with their finances than the federal government, and use the latest tax cuts to deleverage rather than spend freely as they did for most of the last decade, the GDP and unemployment numbers could disappoint. Or perhaps worse for the president, 2011 could be a good year and 2012 the beginning of a second slowdown as the Social Security tax rebate and other stimulus spending ends. Republicans need to keep the national focus on federal spending, regulations that impede business growth and job creation, the annual deficit and accumulated national debt levels, the unemployment rate, and the unpopular health care reform bill.
Foreign events can also intrude. Perhaps most Americans do not care "who lost" Lebanon (to Hezb'allah). But what if Egypt falls to the Muslim Brotherhood, or Iran gets a nuclear bomb faster than our intelligence services deem likely, or if the administration's push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal instead implodes into a third intifada or another war between Israel and Lebanon or Israel and Hamas? What if there is a successful large-scale terror attack or attacks on American soil? Any of these events would drive from the news any new "Sputnik investment moment" (in reality new federal spending for the same initiatives as in the original stimulus bill -- "green jobs," high-speed rail, money for teachers [and their unions]).
The Electoral College map for the 2008 election closely resembled that of Bill Clinton's two wins in 1992 and 1996. Clinton won the popular vote by 6% in 1992 and 8% in 1996, so this is no surprise. Clinton won 370, and then 379 Electoral College votes; Obama won 365. Clinton won 32 states, and then 31 states. Obama won 28 states.
President Bush won two much closer elections in 2000 and 2004, with 271 Electoral College votes, and then 286. He won 30 states in 2000, and 31 in 2004. In fact, only three states shifted from one party to the other from 2000 to 2004: Iowa and New Mexico to Bush, New Hampshire to the Democrats and Kerry.
Democrats start with an Electoral College advantage. Democrats have won eighteen states plus D.C. in each of the last five presidential elections: California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Washington, Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, Maryland, Oregon, Delaware, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Hawaii, and D.C. for a total of 242 Electoral College votes. Several of these states were hotly contested in 2000 and 2004 -- especially Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, totaling 46 Electoral College votes.
For the GOP, the base that has stayed with the party in each of the last five elections is much smaller -- only thirteen states: Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming, totaling 100 Electoral College votes. Six other states with 69 Electoral College votes went for the party four of the last five cycles (Arizona, Indiana, Georgia, Montana, Virginia, and North Carolina), and six others with 48 Electoral College votes have become much more GOP-friendly in recent years and gone Republican in the last three elections (Arkansas, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Missouri). In total, these twelve states add another 117 Electoral College votes. The other seven states have gone back and forth in the most recent cycles: Florida and Colorado went three times for the Republicans, Nevada and Ohio twice, and Iowa, New Mexico, and New Hampshire once.
President Obama's highly successful and skillfully managed 2008 campaign targeted ten states that George Bush won in 2004. Obama won nine of them: Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Iowa, North Carolina, Indiana, Virginia, Ohio, and Florida, and lost only in Missouri by 4,000 votes. In the 2010 midterms, Republicans did much better in these ten swing states, as well as in four states both Kerry and Obama won: New Hampshire, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
As a result of redistricting among the states following the 2010 census, the states George Bush won in 2004 will contain 292 Electoral College votes in the 2012 presidential election, up from 286. Assuming that the 2012 race will be a close contest -- more like the two Bush victories than the Clinton or Obama wins, the Electoral College map provides a real opportunity for a GOP win. Of the ten states Obama targeted in 2010, only in Nevada and New Mexico would Obama be a solid favorite today, and Iowa and Colorado would be tossups. The GOP would be a slight favorite in Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, Indiana, and Missouri. New Hampshire would also be a tossup, and the GOP would start as underdogs, but with an outside shot at Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. In 2008, Obama did not need to expend much energy to hold all the Kerry states; his smallest margin of victory was 9% in New Hampshire. If Obama needs to play defense and spend lots of time and money in a few blue states, it will takes away from his effort to repeat his 2008 success and pick off a bunch of red states. If the entire eighteen-state Democratic base holds with 242 Electoral College votes, it will be a lot easier for Obama to get to 270.
If Obama's approval rating is in the mid-40s in the fall of 2012, unemployment is in the mid-8% range or higher, the economy starts slowing again, and deficits are still over a trillion dollars a year, a Republican, or at least a Republican who can appeal to independents, could very well win in 2012.
Richard Baehr is chief political correspondent of American Thinker.