Toldja: Why Obama Will (Did) Win a Second Term


To underscore the fact that virtually nothing has changed in the past year of campaigning, we offer this Calbuzz classic from one year ago today. Even before Mitt Romney seized the Republican nomination we made this prediction:

One year from now, America will re-elect President Barack Obama.

We know that because of one of the most venerable and reliable adages in the political writers handbook: You can’t beat somebody with nobody.

Our prediction comes with one, specific cover-our-ass disclaimer. The shaky economic condition of the European Union presents an unknowable factor, and a default by Greece — or Italy or Portugal or Spain, for that matter — could have disastrous consequences for the U.S., throwing the stock market and economy into a tailspin so dire that voters would do anything for a change.

Beyond that, however, we know this much for sure: Obama won’t be defeated by a charismatic, inspiring, believable challenger. There isn’t one.

It’s Obama’s good fortune that the Republicans are in disarray right now. Of course, they will eventually come up with a presidential nominee. But whoever it is – and Mitt Romney is most likely – he won’t be a strong enough candidate to take out the incumbent, absent catastrophic economic developments.

GOP demolition derby: The last two incumbent presidents to be ousted were Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George HW Bush in 1992. Their opponents were Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton – politicians with skills unmatched by any of the 2012 GOP contenders.

Thus far, the Republican primary demolition derby has seen Harley Barbour, Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump all take a pass. Tim Pawlenty folded like a cheap tent. Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have driven themselves down in the polls with inanity and sheer stupidity. Scandal-ridden Herman Cain continues to linger, but only until America figures out what Rachel Maddow has so brilliantly observed – that his campaign is actually an inside joke.

Newt Gingrich, whom some analysts believe is about to make a comeback, opened his campaign so ineptly that his staff quit on him in the first month and remains as insufferably unlikeable as ever. Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum are weak ideological bookends who appear about to fall off the shelf.

Which leaves His Mittness – the latter day shape shifter – who was for a woman’s right to choose and universal health care before he was against them, and who seems frozen in place with support from less than one-quarter of the GOP primary voters.  Not to mention his flip-flops on immigration, climate change and the economic stimulus – any one of which is enough to cause Tea Partiers to gnaw on their tri-corner hats.

Even conservative columnist George Will, refers to Romney as “the pretzel candidate…a recidivist reviser of principles who is… becoming less electable.”

Oh, and there’s still that unpleasant Mormon issue. Even in Texas, a slim 53% majority said most of the people they know would vote for a Mormon if they agreed on issues but 25% said they don’t know how people would vote, in a recent poll by the Texas Tribune and University of Texas.

Even that may understate how deeply ingrained among evangelical Christians is the belief that Mormonism is a dangerous, non-Christian cult – a conviction that would not likely net Obama votes (he may be a Christian, but he’s also a black liberal who supports abortion rights). But it could well depress the general election turnout for Romney in Bible Belt states – a few of which could be in play in 2012.

But what about the polls?

Whatever polling says now about the relative strength of any Republican candidate against Obama, is worthless, as are the generic measures of voters’ inclination to re-elect Obama. Until there is a real candidate to whom Obama can be compared and until a campaign is under way in which that Republican’s feet are held to the fire, polling bears little relationship to prediction.

For example, imagine the TV ads in Michigan noting Romney’s opposition to the federal government’s job-saving loan to General Motors, or the ads in Florida with Perry calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme.

As the estimable Nate Silver noted the other day:

At some point early next summer, head-to-head polls like these will become the most important predictors of the November result. But this far out they can be misleading and inaccurate. In a survey conducted in late September 1983, Ronald Reagan actually trailed Walter Mondale by 2 points, and in October 1991, George H. W. Bush led Bill Clinton 55 to 20.

Moreover, presidential campaigns are only about “issues” in the sense that there’s a context in which the election occurs – big picture contexts like war and terrorism, jobs and the economy, social unrest and moral decay. Even more so, voters choose which candidate they think they can live with for four years: who seems more capable, trustworthy, competent and likable?

As Ralph Whitehead of the University of Massachusetts explained long ago, voters want their president to have a hard head and a soft heart. Issues are mostly measures of whether a candidate conforms or conflicts with voters’ personal sense of these two central characteristics.

It won’t be easy: None of this obviates the likelihood that the 2012 race will be incredibly close and dirty. Given the sour mood of the country — with Obama’s approval in the low-to-mid 40s, widespread pessimism about the economy and a shared view that the country is on the wrong track – Obama is lucky the Republicans don’t have a strong contender.

Even so, he’ll have to demonize his GOP opponent. Usually that’s the rightful job of a challenger. But in 2012 – despite having prevented economic collapse, approval of health care, elimination of Bin Laden and Qaddafi and other successes – Obama will have to run a largely negative campaign against his challenger and the Republicans.

Democratic strategist Garry South has seen this movie before – in 2002, when Gov. Gray Davis faced a 39% job approval rating, 57% personal unfavorable and 75% wrong track – in his own polling. With South running his re-elect, Davis won by tearing Republican Bill Simon to shreds and making the case that California would be even worse off with him at the helm.

“This election is not about hope and change. It’s about taking a closer look at the other guy. And in that face-off, Barack Obama is going to win . . . 75 to 80 percent of Republicans don’t want Mitt Romney.” While Democrats may have cooled on the president, “Barack Obama is at least likeable” as opposed to Romney who appears a “phony mechanical man with no core,” said South, warming to the task.

“Since 1896,” South says, “only one president was taken out after taking the presidency from the other party four years before (in 1980, when Reagan beat Carter who’d come in after Richard Nixon/Gerald Ford).”

Bottom line: The battle lines are clear, as our friend Dan Balz of the Washington Post outlined in a piece quoting the leading strategists for the likely opposing camps.

“President Obama’s failures have produced the greatest destruction of the middle class since the Great Depression,” said Stuart Stevens, chief strategist for Romney’s campaign. “The upcoming billion dollars of Obama campaign attack ads can’t distort the reality that this will be about President Obama’s record.”

Obama’s chief campaign strategist, David Axelrod, countered: “At the end of the day, presidential elections are always a choice, not a referendum. The American people take a hard look at each candidate and weigh their respective records, qualities, values and visions for the future. Not being the other guy isn’t enough.”

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There are 11 comments for this post

  1. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    Hysterical that Stevens is blaming the collapse of the middle class on Obama. Guess he forgot it started, like the Solyndra loan, under George W. Bush. Amazing how quickly the story line changes when they want to hang the stench of failure on somebody else. To quote Ms. Maddow again, “Don’t they know we have video machines?” Don’t they realize we have the Internet? Don’t they give us even a little credit for memories that stretch back further than the last fiscal quarter? Surprise! We do.

  2. avatar Chris Reed says:

    Anybody can find historical precedents and say that shows what will happen in 2012. I say look at what happened in 2008. Obama won by 7.3 percent of the vote in a year in which he had everything going for him. His opponent was perceived as a continuation of a horribly failed president presiding over a collapsing economy and two unpopular wars. Far from being an overall liability, the fact that Obama was African-American inspired a huge turnout among parts of the electorate not normally inclined to vote.

    Four years later, no one thinks that enthusiasm for Obama remains to any significant degree. If the electorate were static and one in 27 voters went for the GOP nominee instead of Obama, the GOP candidate would win the popular vote. That would seem to favor the GOP candidate.

    But the electorate is not static. The left is depressed and the right is worked up. If no one changed their minds, and 5 percent of the people who voted for Obama last time sit this out and the equivalent of 5 percent of the 2008 McCain vote turn out in 2012 to vote for the GOP canddiate, the GOP candidate wins the popular by a small but clear margin.

    A combination of those dynamics — people changing their minds about Obama and people on right being more worked up than people on the left — suggests a 2012 GOP win.

    On the Electoral College, the numbers are also negative for Obama. McCain won states with 179 electoral votes adjusted for the 2010 census. That means to win the presidency, the GOP candidate next year must hold the McCain states and pick up 91 more electoral votes.


    Obama is doomed in Indiana and vulnerable in North Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin. He is at risk in Nevada, Colorado (according to the state’s Dem governor), Minnesota and maybe even states that are normally seen as part of the Dem base.

    Politico reports that in the 23 states in which a Senate Democrat incumbent is running, Obama trails the incumbent in approval rating and popularity in every one. Charlie Cook’s last report said eight Democratic Senate seats were at risk of changing hands versus only two GOP Senate seats. Four of those eight Dem seats are in swing states. That’s pretty compelling, too.

    As to the Calbuzz argument that the likely low quality of the GOP opponent will lift Obama to victory, I go back to 2008 again. McCain may be a media darling to some degree as a “maverick,” but he was never viewed as a wonderful war hero by the general public. Mitt Romney or even Rick Perry probably would not have worse negatives than McCain — who only lost by 7.3 percent in a year in which every outside dynamic was against him. McCain was also a terrible candidate, both in retail terms and on TV.

    I will be happy to bet the Calbuzzers a $50 donation to the charity of the winner’s choice that Obama loses.

    • avatar pjhackenflack says:

      Betting on our prediction would compromise our neutrality. 🙂

    • avatar chrisfinnie says:

      “Mitt Romney or even Rick Perry probably would not have worse negatives than McCain.” Really? That’s what you’re basing your expectation of victory on?

      I can’t disagree with you on the enthusiasm deficit for Obama. But I’m pretty confident that once people start looking at GOP plans to cut Medicare and Social Security, the Republican nominee is going to lose his luster pretty fast. Seniors are one of the most reliable voting demographics in the country. And one of the biggest. Then there are those of us approaching retirement. Also a hefty demographic. Add public employees and union members, kids who can’t find a job and know the GOP plans haven’t and won’t work to ease unemployment, and I frankly don’t see a route to victory no matter how unpopular Obama is.

      Unlike the good doctor, I’ll be happy to accept your bet.

    • avatar Tigershark says:

      Chris: Perhaps you would like to revisit this:


  3. avatar cbarney says:

    “people on right being more worked up than people on the left — suggests a 2012 GOP win.”

    we actually haven’t heard much from the tea party lately,and the rightist republican candidates are anything but widely popular; mostly they are considered weirdos.

    the most enthusiastic political movement today seems to be the occupiers – anyone think they will go for the gop?

    i’m a disaffected obamista; i don’t like his war policies and i don’t like his love affair with wall street. i wear a hat with the message “barack?” and i’m not working for the campaign as i did in 2008.

    but i know that in the end i am going to vote for obama and so do my friends who have the same feelings. who else is there, really? calbuzz is right on; you can’t beat somebody with nobody.

  4. avatar OC Progressive says:

    Republicans have a real problem.

    The candidates who might beat Obama won’t run because they aren’t popular with the Republican base, and the candidates who are running are all third rate.

    What Obama really needs to do is to dump Biden and put Hillary on the ticket to gin up the base a little. If he did that and supported the death penalty for corporations ( Hey they’re people too!), he might gin up the base enough to put this out of reach.

  5. avatar maasinman53 says:

    Obama will definitely win a second term because no one is going to elect a Mormon multi-millionaire as a president. The Republicans have no one strong enough to beat Obama.

    The bottom line is no one man can fix our problems and the system continues to get worse as our jobs move to China and other cheap countries. They are not coming back. The pay and health care for our workers is too expensive and so why hire an American when an Asian worker will work for a fraction of the cost in some slave shop?

  6. avatar Sideline says:

    Certainly, you were prescient. Regrettably, you lost a chance to make $50.

  7. avatar cbarney says:

    hey! i logged in for some hot election analysis and what do i get? the best of calbuzz. come on!

  8. avatar Junkman9096 says:

    Yep, been a week. Nothing?

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