Forget all the political commentary over the last three weeks: the fact is, the killing of bin Laden helped Obama. Not as much as the White House would like, nor as little as Republicans would like to think.
Meanwhile, the economy is still stuck in neutral, leaving voters in funk. All of which translates into the following: while President Obama is in a better place politically than he was 30 days ago, he is far from a sure bet to be re-elected in 2012.
The President's bold gamble to take out bin Laden was a massive success and a very good thing for this country.
The political impact was important but not for the reasons you might think. Our sense is that the poll bump from the bin laden killing was going to be single digits and short term and it has been borne out so far. These types of events almost never lead to lasting gains in the headline approval rating. However, they can contribute to a more substantive shift in opinion. So, while Gallup and others have shown the President's approval rating returning to pre-bin Laden levels, the data suggests that there has been a meaningful drop in Obama's disapproval rating. This is important because it means that some swing voters (Independents and soft partisans) are reconsidering the President.
More importantly, the bin Laden decision and take down suggest to voters that Obama is a decisive leader and this was an area of great weakness for the President. In March, a Gallup poll found that only 52 percent of voters thought Obama was a strong and decisive leader. This was down 10 points in the last year and more than 20 points since he took office.
There is a segment of independent and soft Republican male voters who have long felt that Obama is not a decisive, strong leader; they see his intelligence and often professorial demeanor as being unsuited for the Presidency. By taking out America's public enemy number one in a raid on foreign soil, Obama has provided a clear instance of bold leadership that undercuts that criticism. In politics, winning is often about sending clear "signals" and this is as good as it gets on that front.
So, yes, the President got a bump and, yes, it was short lived. We suspect that in the end, the impact will be approximately a 3-5 percent bump in approval and corresponding drop in disapproval that puts him somewhere around 50-51 percent approval rating and 43-45 percent disapproval. In addition, perceptions of the President's handling of foreign policy and Afghanistan have gone up considerably. All in all, a good few weeks for the President.
Unfortunately for the White House, the dominant issue in the country remains the state of the economy, and the news on that front is not nearly as good. Here is our take on the economic situation and the overall political climate leading up to the 2012 elections:
The country remains in a prolonged period of national pessimism that seems at this point to be intractable. The political impact of this cannot be overstated. Six-in-ten Americans think the country is off on the wrong track. According to the Real Clear Politics average of public polls, only 34 percent of voters think the country is going in the right direction. Below is an overlay of the "wrong track" line with the unemployment trend over the last 30 years. Note the correlation.
While "wrong track" has fallen from last year's average of 81 percent, it is still at a historically high level. A NYT/CBS poll in late April found that only 23 percent of voters thought the economy was getting better while 38 percent said it is staying the same and an astounding 39 percent said it is getting worse. Again, pessimism breeds pessimism and this is political death for an incumbent.
The President's re-elect is inexorably tied to the state of the economy and gas prices.
A recent NBC/WSJ survey showed that only 37 percent of voters approved of Obama's handling of the economy. This represented the lowest number of his presidency. With the unemployment rate stuck on 9 percent voters are restless. Yesterday, Ed Lazear, a former chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers and a Stanford University professor of economics, wrote a terrific piece in the WSJ that explained why the job market feels so dismal.
Lazear says that it is because the increase in job growth is being driven by a decline in the number of layoffs, not from increased hiring. People don't feel better because they don't see real hiring. So, the Obama administration's touting of the creation of 244,000 jobs last month felt hollow. Additionally, economists revised their predictions for GDP growth downward last month. The U.S. economy is growing very, very slowly and it is imperceptible to most Americans. This is a perception problem for the White House.
Finally, while gas prices have dropped a bit the last week or two, they are still more than $1 higher than a year ago. And a Consumer Federation of America poll released today has more than 8-in-10 Americans saying that the high cost of fuel is causing financial hardship for their family. Our sense is that gas prices in the $4 per gallon range are very problematic for the President.
Democrats are going to need a strong Obama at the top of the ticket, because 2012 is shaping up to be even more difficult than 2010.
As always, the current composition of the Congress is as important to predicting the composition of the next as are the candidates and issues in this election. While the 2010 midterms forced Democrats to defend a number of vulnerable seats in both the House and Senate, 2012 is shaping up to be even more difficult. Particularly in the Senate, where 2006's class is being replaced, there are a number of open seats as well as vulnerable one-term incumbents where demography favors a GOP takeover. Many are in rural states and districts which have been hotbeds of Tea Party enthusiasm.
Rural Democrats in peril: according to Charlie Cook, the Capitol Hill handicapper, 10 Senate races now qualify as "tossups." Four of these are vulnerable Democratic incumbents: Ben Nelson in Nebraska, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Joe Manchin in West Virginia, and Jon Tester in Montana. Three more are taking place in states where Democrats are retiring: Virginia, New Mexico, and North Dakota.
While they are scattered across the continent, all of these states present a similar-looking type of classic swing voter living well outside the major metro areas where Obama was able to rack up large margins in 2008. As Charlie notes, it is simple: "if Democrats can't connect with exurbs and small-town voters, they will lose the Senate next November -- and make it difficult for President Obama, who held his own among rural Americans in 2008, to recapture states like North Carolina that put him over the top last time around."
After a major upswing for Democrats in the past decade, in 2010 party identification returned to parity, which is hugely problematic for the President's party.
One important point to remember is that turnout tends to be more right-leaning than the overall electorate. And when independent "leaners" are included with their respective party, Democrats now have a mere one-point advantage (45 percent - 44 percent).
The country's political ideology is more fragmented than ever, and therefore putting together a winning coalition will be more difficult than in the past.
This year's edition of the Pew Political Typology study has some fascinating conclusions. As their abstract notes,
"A growing number of Americans are choosing not to identify with either political party, and the center of the political spectrum is increasingly diverse. Rather than being moderate, many of these independents hold extremely strong ideological positions on issues such as the role of government, immigration, the environment and social issues. But they combine these views in ways that defy liberal or conservative orthodoxy."
This is the fracturing of the electorate that has been talked about for a decade: it has undeniably arrived. In the age of personalized media consumption, MicroTargeting and individual ad targeting, Americans are increasingly difficult to easily categorize.
Thanks to John Zirinsky for his insights and contributions. We will be back again in the next few weeks. In the meantime, for real-time reactions to events and more thoughts on the public opinion environment, please follow us on Twitter.