Can Obama Be Beaten?

By Thomson, James W. | USA TODAY, July 2012 | Go to article overview

Can Obama Be Beaten?


Thomson, James W., USA TODAY


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AFTER THE extraordinary congressional gains made by the Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections, many GOP partisans dared to hope that they had a genuine opportunity for complete victory by winning the presidency and the Senate this November--but not so fast. Although Pres. Barack Obama continues to slump while the economy remaines in a recovery quagmire, he still has an excellent chance of being reelected.

In the past, a troubled economy coupled with high unemployment would signal an almost certain defeat at for any incumbent president. Remember Bill Clinton's mantra for the 1992 campaign: "It's the economy, stupid." In 1992, Clinton's slogan worked against incumbent George H.W. Bush despite the President's popularity following victory in the first Iraqi war. However, the old roles may not apply in 2012 for many reasons, including the nation's changing demographics, unpredictable voting behavior, and the quirky institutional features of presidential elections.

The most significant factor is that the 2012 electorate could include 50,000,000 more "active" voters--eligible citizens who actually cast a ballot--than in 2010. Although some of them will be new voters, most had supported Obama in 2008, when he received more than 69,000,000 votes (compared to the winning House Republicans' 31,000,000). The GOP likely face a steep uphill battle to win over a suspicious electorate that mistrusts Congress and the Republicans.

In 2012, the American electorate will be younger, more racially diverse, less white, and far less conservative. Given this scenario, it is very likely that many voters will not vote for the sort of white Republican politicians who make up the bulk of Speaker John Boehner's majority in the House of Representatives. The political effects of U.S. demographics is likely to influence the presidential and congressional races.

Despite forecasts from pundits who believe that the stagnant economy will damage Obama's chances, it will be the 10% to 15% of the electorate, the "swing" voters, who will determine the winners and losers. It is unlikely that Pres. Obama will suffer a humiliating defeat like the hapless Jimmy Carter (in 1980), whose presidency was overwhelmed by economic challenges. If Obama indeed ends up losing, it will be mighty close.

The U.S. often is heralded as the world's greatest democracy but, in fact, most Americans are not committed voters. Few citizens vote every year and almost half never vote at all. Those who legally are eligible to vote fall into three categories: about 40% of the electorate turns out most of the time, but less often for primaries; another 20% votes every four years in presidential elections; and the remaining 40% does not vote at all. Past experience suggests that political success depends heavily on turning out marginal voters; failure to do so usually spells defeat. Of course, the latter outcome occurred in 2010 when many of the 2008 Obama backers failed to vote, which is exactly what Obama's current supporters fear the most for the upcoming election.

According to Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, it is difficult, if not impossible, for voter turnout to be more than 60% of the electorate for presidential campaigns and greater than 40% for midterm elections. Although the 2008 campaign created a wealth of political theater because of Obama's emergence as the first nonwhite presidential candidate ever nominated by a major party, voter turnout was not that much higher than in the George W. Bush-John Kerry contest of 2004. Midterm voter turnout in 2010 dropped into the usual range of about 20% less than in the previous presidential campaign. Democratic voter turnout was relatively weak compared to the Republican faithful who turned out en masse to protest Obama's policies. The GOP was aided by the emerging Tea Party movement with votes that padded the Republican totals. …

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