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

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

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.”