Given the current clown act that has taken over the Republican presidential nomination process, the White House could be forgiven for feeling pretty good about President Obama's chances for re-election. But it would be a serious mistake to read too much into the media circus surrounding Trump, Bachmann, Santorum, and the other buffoons piling out of the tiny car.
At some point in the not-too-distant future, the GOP is going to send out the clowns -- and the game is going to shift dramatically. Gone will be the notion that this election will come down to what percentage of Americans believes Barack Obama wasn't born in the United States. Instead, the operative number will more likely be the stunning 70 percent who, according to the most recent CBS News/New York Times poll, believe the country is on the wrong track, compared to only 26 percent who believe we're on the right track.
Even this far from Election Day, those are grim numbers to set against the very hopeful numbers of the political futures market Intrade, which currently gives the president a 60 percent chance of winning re-election.
For the moment, the White House seems to be following the standard Washington playbook, which is premised on two dubious assumptions: a) elections are decided by "independents" b) "independents" are always to be found in the middle of the road.
So, the Beltway thinking goes, count on those in your base to come out (where else are they going to go?), and run a middle-of-the-road campaign to win over those independents before your opponent can.
It's the classic way to run a campaign. And it was proven completely wrong in 2008 by the winning coalition that swept Obama to victory. He didn't win by swerving to the middle. His 2008 campaign had a different premise: that elections don't have to be the cynical zero-sum game Washington believes them to be. Instead of fighting for the ever-dwindling number of swing voters, Obama fought to win over the much larger number of voters who had turned their backs on the process.
It was audacious -- and it worked. According to a new study by Project Vote, new voters made up 12 percent of the electorate in 2008. And they went for Obama by a margin of two to one. That translated into 10 million first-time votes for Obama -- who won by a margin of 9.5 million.
And a significant portion of the voters who gave Obama his victory were African-Americans, Latinos, and the poor. The percentage of African-Americans casting their first vote went from 17 percent in 2004 to 19 percent in 2008. That means 800,000 African-Americans voted for the first time. Among Latinos, the percentage went from 22 percent in 2004 to 28 percent, adding another 800,000 first-timers. And among those with a family income of less than $15,000, first-time voters went from 18 percent to a whopping 34 percent.
These are precisely the people who have been disproportionately hurt by the recession. Unemployment among African-Americans is much higher than the national average. Indeed, even as the country's rate ticked down in March to 8.8 percent, it climbed from 15.3 to 15.5 percent among African-Americans. Among Latinos, the unemployment rate is 11.1 percent. And, of course, the ongoing shredding of the social safety net greatly impacts all those low-income voters.
Much has been written about the disaffection of the Democratic base, usually taken to mean the most highly involved, activist elements of the party -- the so-called "professional left" that Robert Gibbs complained about in the lead-up to the 2010 midterms. But most of them are almost certainly going to vote for Obama, even if half-heartedly. And a half-hearted vote counts no less than an excited vote.
So, the more intriguing question is what will happen to all those 2008 first-time voters -- and to all those who have become eligible to vote since 2008. 2.2 million more young people voted in that election than voted in 2004, and they went for Obama over McCain 66 percent to 32 percent. However, unlike the Democratic Party base, first-time voters, especially young people, minorities, and low-income families do have something else to do on Election Day -- stay home.
So what is Obama doing to reach these increasingly unlikely voters? One thing they're not particularly interested in is reducing the deficit at the expense of growing the economy and creating jobs. As the Project Vote study notes: "individuals who voted for the first time in 2008 strongly favor an active role for government in ensuring economic fairness and educational opportunity."
For instance, 79 percent of those 2008 first-timers think the economy should be boosted by increasing spending on public works and infrastructure. And 86 percent support more spending on public education.
Instead, what they're getting is a White House that has signed on to Republican principles, like prioritizing steep budget cuts -- even in a faltering economy. The only debate now appears to be whether the cuts will be harsh or incredibly harsh. Those are the official boundaries of debate now acceptable in Washington.
But instead of audaciously enlarging the debate and taking his case directly to the American people -- who, in poll after poll, say they would prefer the government to focus on jobs instead of deficit reduction -- Obama has dutifully accepted the narrow range allowed to him by the conventional wisdom. That's hardly the kind of leadership that inspired those 10 million people to vote for the first time in their lives.
As John Judis writes in his perceptive analysis of where the White House's economic message has gone terribly wrong, "Obama has, sadly, bought the Republican argument for why the economy is in trouble." And the effect, Judis says, "is to nullify Democrats' ability to offer popular programs that will fuel growth, save jobs, and reduce people's insecurity."
Of course, it doesn't help that the media has bought into the same myth. In a Los Angeles Times article about the so-called "Gang of Six" senators, we're treated to this doozy, which is such conventional wisdom that no source was thought necessary: "Democratic senators up for reelection next year are particularly interested in debt-reduction strategies, an issue that has energized independent voters."
Really? Independent voters are "energized" by deficit reduction? That's not what the polls show. And to the extent that polls do show a growing concern about deficit reduction, it's a little like a news station running a month of segments about shark attacks and then at the end of the month claiming viewers are really worried about shark attacks.
What the millions of voters who turned out and elected Obama the first time around -- and who have it in their power to stay home and deny him re-election the second time around -- are actually "energized" by is the prospect of jobs. And by the sort of leadership they thought they were voting for, the sort that doesn't so unquestioningly accept the narrow, self-serving, and false parameters of the economic debate laid out by official Washington.
This is where the media attention should actually be focused. Obama's chances of re-election depend much less on the Republican circus that's currently in town and much more on how much he buys into the conventional wisdom of what the country needs and wants. For every independent or unlikely voter who is actually obsessed with the deficit, there are millions of potential voters waiting to reward with their vote a president who is willing to take bold and decisive action to create jobs and grow the economy. Or punish him by staying home on Election Day 2012.