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2012: Who's Going to Vote?

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On June 16th, political pundits observed that liberals are unhappy with President Barack Obama and conservatives are displeased with GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney. If the 2012 presidential contest matches Obama and Romney, and their bases are turned off, how will this affect the outcome?

The latest Pew Research poll helps answer the question. In 2012, Pew believes that 10 percent of potential voters, mostly young people, will not vote; Pew allocates the remaining 90 percent to three groups: "Mostly Republican," 25 percent, "Mostly Independent," 35 percent, and "Mostly Democratic," 40 percent. (This reflects ideology not actual Party registration.)

In 2008, the Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, got 52.9 percent of the vote, and the Republican candidate, John McCain, received 45.7 percent. Liberals voted overwhelmingly for Obama (89 percent), conservatives did the same for McCain (78 percent), and the race was decided by "moderates" / independents, where 60 percent favored Obama.

The Pew Research poll clarifies Obama's reelection challenge. The President will have to retain "solid liberals" (16 percent of registered voters), "hard-pressed Democrats" (15 percent), and "new coalition Democrats" (9 percent), but this won't give him a majority. To achieve his 2008 margin of victory, Obama must appeal to Independents, probably "post-modern moderates" (14 percent). In other words, Obama has to hold onto a block of voters that are liberal on social issues (abortion, gay marriage, marijuana) but whose opinions on foreign policy (the war in Afghanistan) and domestic policy (the role of government) run a wide gamut. Obama's 2012 dilemma is how to hold onto a liberal base that is unhappy with some of his policies while attracting moderate voters.

Romney has a similar but more difficult test. First, he must hold onto "Staunch Conservatives" (11 percent) who are the Tea Party activists. Then he must attract "Main Street Republicans" (14 percent). Next, Romney must sway all of the "libertarians" (10 percent) and all of the "disaffected moderates" (11 percent) but even then his total would only be 46 percent. Romney's quandary is that he is the champion of only one of the elemental Republican groups, "Main Street Republicans." The "Staunch Conservatives," Tea Party activists, have their favorite candidate, Michele Bachmann. And the Libertarians have their own choice, Ron Paul. (A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll gave Romney 43 percent of the Republican vote, with Bachmann and Paul each garnering 22 percent.) While it's not likely that Bachmann or Paul can win the 2012 Republican nomination, it's unclear whether their supporters will unify behind Romney.

(Romney has an additional problem. Twenty percent of Republicans and Independents indicate they would not support a Mormon for President.)

Barack Obama has the advantage so long as Democrats turn out their base, something they failed to do in the 2010 mid-term elections. In 2008 the generic House vote was 55 percent Democrat and 45 percent Republican. This flipped in the 2010 mid-term election where Republicans got 54 percent and Democrats 46 percent. The change was due to turn out: in 2010, Republicans got out their base and Dems didn't. In 2008 the percentage of voters identifying themselves as liberal, moderate, and conservative was 22 percent, 44 percent and 34 respectively. In 2010 this shifted with liberals having 20 percent, moderates 38 percent, and conservatives an astonishing 42 percent. In 2010 the electorate was considerably older and whiter than it had been in 2008; this was the Tea Party phenomenon: white conservative seniors angry at government. But since then Democrats have regained their enthusiasm and a recent Gallup Poll noted a jump in Democratic Party affiliation.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Romney as the strongest Republican candidate against Obama. Nonetheless, Obama got 49 percent of the vote versus Romney's 43 percent with 8 percent undecided. Splitting the undecided vote, the projected tally becomes 53 percent Obama and 47 percent Romney, similar to the 2008 Obama-McCain vote.

Thus, the 2012 election seems to be Obama's to lose. Romney has the more difficult political task. He has to unify the Republican Party -- which is actually three different Parties - in a way that does not alienate the Moderate/Independent voters that he must have to win.

To be reelected, Barack Obama must do three things: First, he has to repair relations with liberal democrats by deeds as well as words -- withdrawing troops from Afghanistan was a good first step. Second, Obama has to make clear the differences between his candidacy and that of Romney or whomever the Republican Presidential nominee is -- the more awful the GOP candidate, the easier this task will be. Finally, the Obama campaign has to turn out his base: solid liberals, hard-pressed Democrats, and new-coalition Democrats.

Because Republicans won't have an attractive candidate and, therefore, little chance of legitimate victory, their strategy will be to suppress the vote for Obama in key states. (They've already started doing this in states like Wisconsin with new voter-id laws that make it more difficult for Democrats to vote.) Whether or not the GOP miscreants are successful will determine who will vote in 2012 and the President's reelection.