Why The 2012 Conventional Wisdom Could Be Wrong

Since 1944, exactly one Democratic U.S. president has been re-elected to a second White House term. So when the one man who has accomplished that feat — Bill Clinton — says of the incumbent president, Barack Obama, “I’ll be surprised if he’s not re-elected,” you know he’s speaking as somebody who personally knows more than a little about the subject.

Despite continuing dismal reports and prospects on the nation’s economy, Obama does indeed look formidable for 2012. Even Republicans who passionately want to retire him have been unable yet to muster great enthusiasm for the field of GOP challengers. With no organized, intra-party opposition to his renomination (recall that the last three incumbent chief executives who were defeated — Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush — all faced primary challengers), Obama could be sitting on a nine-figure war chest by the time Republicans, having spent good will and many millions, eventually do pick a nominee.

But before Democrats begin celebrating, there is the problem of the campaign and the voters, who are notoriously unpredictable. This time, Barack Obama will not be the new, exciting challenger, but rather the familiar incumbent with some political scar tissue.

Historically, there are just two basic routes for any incumbent seeking re-election, whether for county auditor or president. The first is what we call the High Road, where the candidate for re-election proclaims the real improvements his policies and actions have made in citizens’ lives. The second is the Low Road, when there are no such successes to herald so the incumbent instead spends his time and money alleging the political, professional and personal defects of his opponent. This is a variation of the “I admit I may be no day at the beach, but the Other Guy would steal a hot stove and go back for the smoke.”

Here is where history tells us that Obama’s re-election campaign will not be any walk in the park. The Gallup Poll has been regularly asking the same question — “in general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?” — for more than 33 years.

When the percentage of Americans who were dissatisfied with the way things were going has climbed over 70 percent, it has indicated that the presidential nominee of the party controlling the White House would lose.

In 1992, when Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush, 73 percent of voters before the election were dissatisfied. The last time Gallup asked that question before Ronald Reagan ousted Carter, 78 percent of voters did not like the way things were going in the U.S. In 2008 — well before the financial crisis that would seal the outcome — 80 percent of voters were dissatisfied.

By contrast, voters do not need to be thrilled with the way things are going to vote to retain a president. Both George W. Bush and Clinton won second terms when just over 40 percent of voters were satisfied with the direction of the U.S., and the national mood was just slightly more positive when Ronald Reagan won his 1984 re-election landslide.

Here is the problem for Obama. In seven national surveys this year, Gallup has asked the way things are going question. The results have been consistently negative — an average of 21 percent are satisfied and just over 76 percent dissatisfied. Those are numbers that tell us voters want change and not continuity in their leadership.

What it guarantees, absent some dramatic improvement in the national mood, is that you can expect a 2012 campaign that’s short on inspiration and long on invective, that accentuates the negatives of the opposition.



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