A new poll today has some grim numbers for the president. Though it shows him besting Perry and Romney in head-to-head match-ups, it’s well within the margin of error, and his numbers for job approval, whether the country is on the right track, and in a head-to-head against a generic Republican are rather discouraging.
That said, his general election percentages are causing a bit of exaggerated analysis. At NBC news, for example, Mark Murray is quoted as saying that Obama is “no longer the favorite” to win in 2012. Keep in mind, this is a national poll, which is essence a snapshot of the feelings of the entire general electorate; in other words, the popular vote. Guess what has nothing to do with who is elected president? That’s right.
The data that would actually tell us Obama’s current reelection prospects would be state-by-state match-ups within the traditional swing states, as well as within red states that Obama turned (temporarily?) blue in 2008. Remember, Bush “won” (or was installed) in 2000 even though he lost the popular vote by half a million votes. In 2004, if a few more liberals had turned out in Ohio, John Kerry would have won the presidency with a popular vote deficit of about 3 million votes. It are the electoral votes that matter, as unfortunate and aberrant as that is.
Now think about what states, then, Obama would need to carry. The latest census changes somewhat the number of electoral votes each state has, and the new numbers favor the Republicans, but on the whole the math isn’t terribly different. To win, Obama will of course need to carry the traditional blue states — there will be no room to lose anything that, say, Gore or Kerry had previously won. After that, it’s only a handful of more electoral votes that Obama would need to win the day. At an event at Brookings in 2009 that I reported on for one of my previous employers, National Journal’s Ron Brownstein called the block of safely blue states the “Blue Wall.” I wrote at the time:
… the event left no doubt in anyone’s mind that Democrats’ growing appeal to suburban and younger white working-class voters, and the dwindling of the country’s rural population, the growing numbers of minority voters and other emergent groups — what Ron Brownstein called “the coalition of the ascendant” — meant that Democrats would have a national electoral advantage for the foreseeable future.
Things are looking much tougher than expected, doubtless, as Brownstein himself has recently written:
… Obama’s approval rating exceeds his disapproval rating in states with 301 Electoral College votes — well down from his 365 total in 2008 but still enough to win. That total, however, includes North Carolina, where Obama’s approval and disapproval ratings are virtually even, and Georgia, where Republicans remain skeptical that he can seriously compete, despite signals from his reelection campaign that it intends to. If those two are removed from the list, the states in which Obama’s approval number exceeds his disapproval rating provide exactly 270 Electoral College votes, the bare majority needed to win.
So while Obama’s job ahead is tougher than most pundits (including me) had predicted, the notion that he’s in dire straits is not quite accurate. Things could certainly get worse, but it isn’t as though he’ll be facing the most appealing opposition, regardless of who gets the GOP nod. Romney, with a genuine centrist record despite his right-appeasing campaigning, still presents the clearest threat, though as I’ve noted Perry has potential appeal that may transcend his ideological distance from the electorate as a whole.
But again, that’s irrelevant right now. If, for example, Perry’s national numbers are strong against Obama, that could be because he’s running enormous margins in states that he’d win anyway like Texas. Obama doesn’t need to win the electoral-vote-rich states like Ohio by big margins. He just needs to win them by a single vote to take their electoral votes. So let’s wait and see whether Perry and Romney are faring this well because they’re genuinely popular across the spectrum, or whether they’re just being bolstered by those states that already loathe their illegitimate, communist, Muslim, Kenyan-born president.