While the focus the last few weeks has been on the tumult within the GOP primary race, gone unnoticed has been the sharp and aggressive turn that team Obama has taken toward possible re-election. The President has had the best 30 days since the first few months of 2009. Improvement in the unemployment rate, a gradual rise in the President's approval rating, a sharply focused re-election strategy (propelled yesterday by a laser like populist speech) and the stumbling of a cadre of GOP candidates who seem intent on giving away this election has made it at least a 50/50 shot that Obama wins re-election in 2012. This is quite a change since Labor Day.
Here is a quick snapshot of the current political environment:
- Obama's job approval rating has stabilized in the 43-45% range. His approval rating is poor but not life threatening. It now looks like Obama's approval rating reached its lowest point in mid-September before rebounding. While the 1 or 2 point gain over the past couple months may not seem like much, Obama is in a range where every voter he can convince to give him another term is important. To give some perspective on what would be a toxic approval rating....one year out from his re-election in December of 1979, Jimmy Carter's approval rating was 32%.
- There may be a glimmer of hope in the national unemployment situation and this is the train that will drive or derail Obama's re-election. The unemployment rate fell by 0.4 percentage point to 8.6% in November, and nonfarm payroll employment rose by 120,000. This is the largest dip in unemployment since the rate fell from 9.4% in December 2010 to 9.0% in January of this year. The caveat is that this is just one month's data and 8.6% is hardly good. Still, the White House has been desperate for any positive economic news, so look for a quick pivot to increased messaging on "green shoots in the economy" if this continues for another month or two. More importantly, as we have said repeatedly, it is not about getting to some magic number (like 7%); rather, it is about the trend being in the right--or wrong direction. That is what will determine Obama's re-election.
- Republican of the Month Newt Gingrich is Romney's toughest challenger yet. With Perry still in a poll slump and Herman Cain suspending his campaign in the face of what feels like hundreds of sexual misconduct accusations, it is now the former Speaker's chance to take on Mitt and he appears to be reenergized by his newfound stature in the campaign. Our sense is that GOP primary and caucus voters who are enamored with Gingrich's bomb throwing style, may overlook his post-Speaker ethical transgressions. Several national polls in the past week have shown Gingrich in the lead, including the latest from Gallup which shows the former Speaker leading Romney 37% - 22%. Gingrich has jumped ahead with a 15-point bounce since mid-November, thanks to Cain's exit, while Romney has added just one more point. In another new Post poll of Iowa caucus-goers, the results are similar: Gingrich earned 28% of votes, while Romney is at 18%, in a statistical tie with Ron Paul. Gingrich is a skilled debater and orator, and one of the few Republican hopefuls who can go toe-to-toe with Romney's command of the issues and experience. As Bret Baier's interview showed, Romney is not entirely unflappable. Yet despite Gingrich's surge in polling, we're not ready to call him the front-runner just yet. Time will tell whether he can survive the increased scrutiny that will come the next few weeks let alone in next week's debate.
- The Romney campaign is watching their flank in New Hampshire. In a poll of New Hampshire primary voters conducted in early December four years ago, Mitt Romney led the field with 37% to McCain's 20%. You probably remember that one ended with McCain defeating Romney, 37%-32%--we're pretty sure that the Governor hasn't forgotten. With Gingrich creeping up on him in the polls--the latest New Hampshire statewide shows -Romney is up and running with another $85k ad buy already.
- For all the drama over primary dates and delegate counts, the upshot is this: 2012 will be the closest Republicans have come yet to a national primary. The long-standing tradition of losing candidates and commentators blaming the idiosyncrasies of Iowa and New Hampshire for the course of Presidential nominating contests may be nearing its end. The first case in point is Rick Santorum: his dedication to the traditional Iowa campaign may not be yielding him much. But, as Jon Ward and Mark Blumenthal observe, this isn't just about the rise of broadcast media and the decline of retail politics: the schedule and delegate counts for this year's GOP primary are less front-loaded then ever. While winning never hurts, we're not so sure that Romney needs an early knockout. First of all, given the broad dissatisfaction with Romney as a candidate and the long list of candidates still in the race, it's unrealistic that anyone will leap out to a large early lead. As we saw with Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary, a candidate just needs to credibly survive the early contests--with maybe a victory or two--to remain competitive. And an extended campaign against three or four more conservative challengers probably helps Romney, because the more-conservative candidates are mostly fighting for the same slice of the electorate. Additionally, polls indicate that the Perry, Cain, Gingrich and Bachmann voters would nearly all prefer one of these more conservative candidates to Romney. Still, especially with many high-dollar fundraisers still sitting on the sidelines and rank-and-file donations that will also pick up substantially after the first round of primaries, early momentum still matters.
- As the Euro crisis continues to unfold, we seem to have achieved a temporary calm. A chorus of analysts has pointed out the recent Euro compromise addresses only the symptoms, rather than the underlying sovereign debt issues. Meanwhile, the Dow has risen over 800 points in the past two weeks. We won't pretend to know whether this is a sign of confidence in the dollar swap plan or a pessimistic flight to dollars. What we do know is that this may provide a short-term boost to the U.S. economy at a politically important time but the risk of a Euro breakdown and a global financial shock still appears real.
As the Obama re-election campaign begins to take shape, here are some interesting strategic elements to watch for:
- What will the campaign's messages be on the election's key issues? The biggest challenge, as we see it, is that the Obama campaign will have to confront and defend his actions on two issues that have dominated his first term: the economic situation and health care reform. The latest Kaiser Foundation poll shows 44% of the public (and 47% of independents) has an unfavorable opinion of the Affordable Care act, compared with 37% who view it favorably. This is a problem for Team Obama. However, it is nothing compared to the economy. As we're almost tired of saying, the general sentiment regarding the direction of the country and the economy remains historically bad. The President will likely be forced to defend his policies on the economy and the lack of growth. Keep a close eye on GDP as well as the unemployment rate. And, despite how one might feel about the bank and auto bailouts as a matter of policy, it's clear that it will be difficult for Obama to use these bailouts as talking points in a country where Occupy Wall Street continues to camp in downtowns across America. One advantage Obama does enjoy is that, like Clinton in 1996, he doesn't have to face a primary of his own. Having to pivot from a primary audience to the general electorate is already a huge challenge in our media-saturated environment and doing so when having to discuss difficulties in your record would only be more difficult.
- Note that we didn't mention foreign policy--will it be an issue at all? Our sense is that it would take a major flashpoint in Iran or Pakistan for foreign affairs to have a major impact on the Presidential race. In the past two years we've officially removed our last combat troops from of Iraq and killed Osama Bin Laden. Four years ago, you would have expected these would be keystone accomplishments, yet for most voters they hardly register.
- Which candidate would Obama least want to face? This one is easy. Team Obama's strategy of forcing Romney to essentially fight a two front war - is one of the most brilliant political moves we have seen in 2 decades. Their ad spend level has been off the charts for this early in the game and their current strategy of going after Romney as a flip-flopper early is a win-win for Obama. If Romney wins, it will be one of their key attack messages and it's never to early to start hammering away, especially while the former MA Governor is tied up responding to the myriad attacks from fellow Republicans. And, in the unlikely case that someone other than Romney is the nominee, that is also a win for Team Obama, as they'd clearly prefer to face a more conservative opponent. This is also somewhat new ground for a sitting President. In 2004, Bush and the RNC waited until Kerry's nomination was a foregone conclusion before engaging in any ads directly attacking him, and we can't recall any other sitting President diving in during the other party's nominating contest.
- How will many of the swing states that Obama flipped in 2008 hold up in 2012? The answer is probably not many. This remains the big vulnerability for Obama next year. McCain lost several states by only a few percentage points and many of them should return to the GOP fold this year including; Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, Iowa and New Hampshire. That puts a premium on Obama winning Ohio and Florida. Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and possibly Wisconsin are all very much toss-ups. The point is that while Obama is treading water politically, that will not likely be enough to get him across the line in many states he won in 2008.
- Which pieces of his 2008 coalition are most vital to a re-election? After four long years in office, we often observe candidates for re-election performing worse with at least one of the key segments that were vital to their initial victory. In 1992, Clinton had a 22-point advantage in the two-party vote among white women, in 1996 it was only 14-points. Basically, it's hard to keep everyone happy the second time around, even when a re-election campaign is successful. We noted in our last Monitor that President Obama appeared to be positioning himself alongside the Occupy Wall Street movement and in opposition to the wealthy and powerful. As Sean Trende notes, Obama's approval rating among upscale white voters appears to be down to around 40%, which would probably translate to a vote share in the mid-40s. Given the political climate and his falling fortunes with such voters, writing off more affluent whites in order to bolster his standing with minorities and lower-income whites would be an interesting move. Such a populist turn could be particularly effective against an opponent like Romney. And as we saw from the President's speech yesterday...a populist clarion call is what we will hear repeatedly from him in 2012.
Thanks to John Zirinsky for his insights and contributions to the Election Monitor. We will be back with our next edition in a couple weeks. For real-time reactions to events and more thoughts on the public opinion environment, please follow us on Twitter @Steve_Lombardo.