Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Road to the White House: How Obama could lose it

From a political science perspective Obama is strategically positioned to win the presidency on November 6.  If all the polls are correct Obama has well positioned himself to win the critical 270 Electoral Votes to win the presidency, even if he were to lose the popular vote.  This split in the Electoral Vote and popular vote is a real possibility, but there are so many signs pointing to an Obama victory. He has a better ground game than Romney, he has registered more voters, delivered more early voters to the polls.  He has the demographic advantage with women and people of color.  All of this points to an Obama victory.

Yet for months I have said that Obama should not even be in this race.  The economy should have doomed him already.  Unemployment has ticked down, the GDP is up slightly, durable goods sales are better as is true also with home sales.  But unemployment is still high and past history suggests presidency almost always lose with numbers like this.  If this coming jobs report is bad–or at least spun as bad–Obama is in real trouble because he will not be able to explain away the economy over the last weekend where the news will key in on that.

Additionally, Obama’s major failure all along has been the missing narrative.  Obama has not had a rationale for reelection since at least back to 2010.  The Democrats were trounced in 2010 because they lacked a narrative and even today Obama too still lacks one.  “Forward” is meaningless.  Presidents needs to make the case for why they deserve four more years and Romney has correctly hammered Obama for a failure to articulate a vision for the future.

 A weak economy and no vision–this is a recipe to lose.  All that has kept Obama in the race is that Romney is a weak candidate.  The mistake of the first debate was that Obama made Romney look like a viable alternative.

But there is something else going on right now that is less political science and more intuition and observational.  Obama does have a lead in the critical swing states but that support may be soft and eroding.

Consider for example the October 28, 2012 Star Tribune poll that gives Obama merely a three point lead in the state.   Minnesota should never be a swing state and if it is Obama is in danger.  There are some reasons to thing the poll is accurate.  The Democratic-Republican makeup of the poll is 38%-33%, just about what I think it is in the state.  This should be cause for Obama to worry.  But the land line-cellphone split of 80%-20% probably under samples those who would support Obama.  And the news of the president consolidating support among independents also suggests that the president is doing well in the state.  Yet in a state where the Marriage amendment might pass, many if not most of those who support it might also vote for Romney, Obama might want to consider one more visit to the state before election day.

But nationally there are also worries for Obama.  The Washington Post reports the largest racial divide in the electorate since 1988.  Obama should worry.  Political scientists Charles Tien, Richard Nadeau, and Michael Lewis-Beck concluded that Obama lost five percentage points of the popular vote due to his race.  This time around that see him losing about 3 points.  They may be wrong.  Many working class whites voted for Obama begrudgingly in 2008 because of the economy.  Obama has had a hard time sealing the deal with them this time around.  It is possible that at the last minute that do not go for him.   Here is also some evidence that the waitress moms–working class moms without college degrees, are not as strong supporters this time around and may waiver.

So much of Obama’s 2012 strategy (as I have noted before) is reminiscent of the 1980 Carter strategy to make Reagan look like a nut.  Yet in the last 96 hours of the election the race went from a tie to a Reagan blowout as millions of voters changed their minds.  Reagan’s “Are you better off” question resonated, as did the reality of the continued Iranian hostage crisis pointed to a presidency that appeared to  lack leadership.  Voters liked Reagan as a person and the disgust with the status quo was so powerful that they opted for change over status quo.

There is no Iranian hostage crisis today.  People like Obama better as a person.  Much early voting has taken place.  But there are still 5% undecided voters in the swing states.  Hurricane Sandy if badly handled by the president could further dent his leadership and competency image.  And the economy and race are still factors.

Pure political science suggests today an Obama victory.  Political intuition tempers that.


  1. Hi David- This is a good article. In regards to your polling discussion. I have worked with survey research extensively..just not in politics. One of the biggest problems with survey research is when we create false constructs...or constructs that are not quite on. I sometimes wonder if the Minnesota electorate operates on a more Social Democrat (lite) vs Libertarian paradigm than a liberal/conservative one. To be sure there are many social conservatives, but I think if the MN electorate is even a little nudged towards socialdem/libertarian it would explain how the left manifests itself differently here than in Boston...and also how there are such strong libertarian underpinnings in many politicians on the center right. Curious on your thoughts?

  2. one more marketing we show survey results as a range..utilizing the CI. I can't understand why political reporting doesn't do the same. Is it because it wouldn't look so precise?