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Humphrey Taylor

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What Are Obama's Chances of Being Re-Elected?

Posted: 08/02/11 06:34 PM ET

With the debt crisis behind us, and some commentators concluding that the Republicans got the better of President Obama, there are many reasons to expect that he will be a one-term president. When times are tough we tend to vote against incumbents. But voting against Obama means voting for one of his opponents, and there are a number of reasons why many people may be reluctant to do that.

It seems likely that the main issue in the 2012 election will be the economy, both how it is doing and how people feel about the future. The latest economic news is bad; the recovery has almost ground to a halt. People care most about jobs, and unemployment is still very high with little sign that we can expect much improvement any time soon. Over the years economists and econometricians have built models based on economic indicators, that attempted to predict the outcome of presidential elections. Those models, if used now, would predict a big Republican victory. But the models have always been better at predicting the past than the future. They predicted a big win for Al Gore in 2000. Furthermore, you cannot beat somebody with nobody, and the likelihood is that the Republican candidate, whoever he or she is, will go into the election with several strong vulnerabilities.

Many of the latest poll findings, on the sour public mood, make dismal reading for the White House:

  • The most recent Gallup poll, conducted before the resolution of the debt crisis, shows President Obama with his lowest ratings since he entered the White House.

  • A recent Harris Poll found that 74% of all adults think the economy is in bad shape and pessimism about the economy is at its highest point since Obama was elected. Another Harris Poll finds that 75% of the public believes the country is on the wrong track, also the highest number since the 2008 election.

  • Another Harris Poll finds that a 52% to 42% majority of the public say they are unlikely to vote for President Obama, and only 35% think he will be re-elected.

  • A huge 74% to 26% majority of the public gives the president negative marks on his handling of the economy, and only 23% of the public think the economy will improve in the next year.

  • A 64% majority believes that the job market is bad in their region and only 22% think the job market will improve in the next six months.

  • A recent Pew survey has reported big gains by the GOP among whites, especially low income and less well-educated whites,

  • A recent ABC poll found that discontent with the Federal Government is at its highest point in 19 years, with 80% dissatisfied.

A key question, however, is whether the Republicans can take advantage of what would seem to be a very promising situation. It is clear that they have their problems too:

  • The latest Harris Poll numbers show only 18% of adults give the Republicans in Congress positive ratings.
  • A recent CBS poll found that, when asked who is most to blame for the country's economic problems, only 8% blamed President Obama , compared to 25% who blamed Wall Street, 26% who blamed President Bush, and 11% who blamed Congress.
  • Furthermore several polls show that most people see the Republicans as supporting Wall Street, large companies and the rich, while most people see Obama as focusing on the needs of the middle class.
"A plague on all your houses" is an accurate summary of the public mood, and this is normally a recipe for a "throw the bums out" vote against incumbents. But how well are Republicans positioned to benefit from the public's anger? Are they also bums? Can Obama win on the basis that "the devil you know is better than the one you don't know"? One of the Republicans' problems is that they have to fight primary elections and President Obama does not. He can take positions that appeal to the center, to Moderates and Independents, without fear of losing the nomination. Republican presidential candidates have to win the votes of primary voters who are more socially and fiscally conservative, and include many Tea Party supporters. The positions they take may antagonize many of the voters they will need to attract to win in November. While the Republican nominee will surely try to move to the center after the nomination, he or she will probably have given a few hostages to fortune that can be used against them by President Obama. Over the last few weeks the Republicans have opposed higher taxes for billionaires, closing tax loopholes for the oil industry and the use of corporate jets, attacked the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, and voted for privatizing Medicare. All this has made it easy for the Democrats to label them as the party of the rich and powerful, of big business, big oil and the insurance industry, which wants to "end Medicare as we know it". FDR, "the traitor to his class", whose four election victories all featured attacks on the rich and powerful, would have been happy to have been handed these cards. But whether Obama, who does not seem to relish aggressive political debate, will play them, is uncertain.

For those of us who are voyeurs of American politics there is the knowledge that a lot of unpredictable things will happen over the next 15 months. As Don Rumsfeld said "stuff happens". When British Prime Minister Harold McMillan was asked what was the toughest part of his job he replied "events, dear boy, events". And another Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, famously remarked that "a week is a long time in politics". Stay tuned.