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Op-Ed

Treading Water: Why the Obama Campaign is Doing Worse Than It Seems

William A. Galston

President Obama’s team perhaps once hoped to reenact Ronald Reagan’s triumphant 1984 march to reelection. But it’s now clear that they’re condemned to repeat George W. Bush’s much less inspiring campaign in 2004.

The playbook is clear: A barrage of negative advertising to define your opponent before he can define himself; a stream of issues and events to mobilize your base; and a meticulous ground game to squeeze every last vote out of the base come November. As for the small number of voters who haven’t made up their minds already, you don’t try to argue that they’ve never had it better, but rather that the other guy is unacceptable. In the end, you win a narrow victory by default. Sure, you haven’t really confronted the country’s deepest problems. But there’ll be plenty of time to deal with them next year.

The only justification for such a campaign is necessity, and the only vindication is victory. So how is it going so far? Three recent national surveys offer some clues.

First the toplines. ABC/Washington Post puts the candidates in a dead heat, 47-47; Quinnipiac gives Obama a narrow 46-43 edge, within the margin of error; Pew shows Obama with a 7-point lead, 50-43. ABC/WP places Obama’s job approval at 47 percent; for Quinnipiac, it’s 45 According to the latter, 47 percent of the people believe that Obama deserves reelection, while 49 don’t.

Some other ABC/WP findings help explain the electorate’s reservations about the president. Only 44 percent approve of his handling of the economy, by far the most important issue in this year’s election, versus 54 percent who don’t. When asked which candidate they trusted to do a better job handling the economy, 49 percent said Romney, while only 44 chose Obama. Quinnipiac had it a bit closer—Romney 46, Obama 45. Pew offers this oddity: while its survey finds Obama leading 48-42 on “improving economic conditions,” Romney leads 46-42 on “improving the job situation.” When asked a forward-looking question—what they thought of the president’s plans for the economy, only 44 percent of the Quinnipac sample expressed a favorable view, compared to 50 percent unfavorable. In the ABC/WP survey, only 36 percent thought that Obama’s handling of the economy was a major reason to support him, versus 43 percent who thought it was a major reason to oppose him.

Is Romney in great shape on the economy? Anything but. Only 40 percent of the WBC/WP respondents had a favorable view of his economic plans, versus 46 percent unfavorable. And by 43 to 38 percent, they thought that Obama had presented a clearer plan for the economy than had Romney. (In late October of 2008, Obama led McCain by 50 to 32 on that same measure. Romney’s doing much better than his Republican predecessor, while Obama is doing much worse than he did four years ago.)

For reasons I don’t understand, the Pew surveys have pretty consistently yielded better results for Obama—larger edges and higher shares of the electorate—than have those from most other organizations over the past few months. For our purposes, however, the most important finding from their latest survey is this: “there is no clear trend in either candidate’s support since Romney wrapped up the GOP nomination … The presidential campaign’s dynamics have changed little in recent months.” Quinnipiac finds exactly the same thing, while ABC/WP shows that the boost Obama got from the unsightly Republican nominating contest was at best temporary.

Given the strategic decisions the Obama campaign has made, two questions emerge as decisive. First, what are the prospects for a 2004-style mobilization of its base coalition? By all accounts, Obama’s team has a substantial head-start in the organizational nuts and bolts needed for a successful get-out-the-vote effort. But compared to 2008, it may be an uphill fight. In his first presidential campaign, Obama enjoyed a huge edge among young adults and did worst among older voters. But new numbers from Gallup indicate that by an astonishing 20 percentage points, fewer voters aged 18 to 29 say that they will definitely vote than they did four years ago, and their voting intentions fall short of this year’s average among all registered voters by the same margin. By contrast, relative to the electorate as a whole, more older voters are committed to voting. The same Gallup survey shows diminished enthusiasm among Hispanic voters. In 2008, members of this pivotal group were a modest 8 points below the national average for definite voters. This year, it’s 14 percent.

To be sure, there’s time to gin these numbers up, and history suggests that the intentions of groups who are more weakly attached to the electoral process can change more than those of groups for whom voting is an established habit. Still, Obama’s 2008 mobilization effort had the wind in its sails, while this year’s effort faces some significant headwinds—perhaps enough to negate the much-discussed demographic shift in his favor over the past four years.

The second key question for Obama’s strategy is whether his campaign’s attack on Mitt Romney is succeeding in defining him as an unacceptable alternative. Based on the evidence, it’s too early to say.

On the one hand, the last round of Bain attacks has clearly rattled the Romney campaign, and a smattering of survey evidence suggests that the sustained ad campaign in swing states has scored some points. On the other hand, the Pew survey found no shift since May in swing-state voter preference.

But it’s not too early to say that Obama’s vital signs look dicey. Over the past 33 months, his job approval has been lower than George W. Bush’s at a comparable time in his presidency for all but one week. Bush averaged above 50 percent in the quarter before his successful reelection campaign, while Obama has been stuck in the 46-48 percent range for months. And the famous “wrong track” measure now stands at 63 percent, versus 55 percent in the days preceding the vote in 2004. If these two numbers don’t improve for Obama, his presidency will be in jeopardy. And they probably won’t—unless the economy perks up noticeably.

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