Is it Obama’s to lose?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, June 21, 2011


President Obama’s reelection chances depend on three independent factors, the economy, Obama’s ability to raise funds, and the name of the Republican nominee. If Obama can get win on two of those three fronts, he will cruise to a second term.   


In recent weeks, the American mass media has enthusiastically repeated that no president has won re-election with unemployment at 7.2% or higher since FD Roosevelt.  As the unemployment rate currently stands at 9.1%, the inevitable conclusion is that Obama is doomed in 2012. Consequently, the argument seems to suggest, Americans will punish Obama and will replace him with whomever the Republicans nominate.


Ten presidents have sought re-election since FDR died in 1945. Three of them lost: Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H. Bush in 1992. In each of those failed campaigns, the economy certainly played a role. However, the cause of their defeat can be traced elsewhere. Ford was never elected to begin with. He became Vice-President in December of 1973 when Spiro Agnew was forced to resign after a tax scandal. Ford was sworn as president in August of 1974 when Richard Nixon resigned during the Watergate scandal. His re-election would have been an uphill battle regardless of the economic situation. Still, Ford lost in a fairly close race to former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.


Four years later, Carter's defeat had as much to do with unemployment as with inflation and the Iran hostage crisis. Finally, President Bush's defeat in 1992 was aided by the conservative revolt that ended in the independent presidential bid by Ross Perot. Because Perot attracted support in traditional Republican states, his 18% vote was sufficient to allow Democrat Bill Clinton to claim victory with 43% of the vote, the lowest vote share since 1968’s Richard Nixon’s close victory.  Curiously, President Ronald Reagan won re-election in 1984 by a landslide, despite the 7.2% unemployment rate.


Pocket-book voting is a powerful explanatory variable in American politics, but it is not the only contributing factor. Politics also matters. Campaign strategies are important. The political mood of the country can sway voters to make decisions not solely based on economic concerns.  In 1992, Clinton popularized the “it's the economy, stupid” slogan. However, that slogan—and the importance it acquired in the campaign—was evidence of Clinton’s campaign skills and his ability to focus on the message more than the underlying reason for success. Clinton masterfully engaged Perot to help him become a relevant player in the campaign. Though Clinton also lost votes to Perot, Bush more votes in critical states. With a similar catchy slogan on the importance of the economy, a less appealing and less skillful politician would have gone nowhere in 1992.


In 2012, Obama will face a tough economic scenario to win re-election. The unemployment rate is unlikely to fall fast in the coming months. It will probably be above 7.2% by November 2012. If anything, the current economic slowdown might actually push unemployment figures higher. 


However, the incumbent president also has a few things going for him. His popularity has never been stellar, but it has been extremely consistent near the 50% mark. He polls much stronger among African Americans and younger voters. He has beefed up his national security credentials after the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Most importantly, he has delivered some key campaign promises during his first term. To be sure, he has also failed to fulfill some promises—and that might hurt his support in some key sectors, like Latinos and the anti-war movement. However, those disappointed groups are still much more likely to support Obama—if they vote—than to throw their support behind the Republican candidate.  During the first few weeks of the campaign, Obama has shown that he has an even stronger fundraising operation than four years ago, when he broke all records in terms of absolute amounts of money raised and number of donors.


Most importantly, Obama can still count on the Republican Party ability to self-inflict wounds. The field of likely republican candidates is far from impressive. Though some of those in the running will be able to raise millions of dollars, none of the candidate seems strong enough to compete against Obama for the support of minorities and moderate whites. Among the large number of unemployed, discontent with the current government policies will help Republicans. Yet, it is not clear whether that discontent will also extend to the business elite and, thus, also negatively affect some of the Republican hopefuls, like the former governor of Massachusetts and successful businessman Mitt Romney.


Obama’s reelection chances will certainly be affected by the ailing American economy. However, just as he became the first African American president, he can be the first incumbent president to win re-election with high unemployment. Moreover, as he continues to amass an impressive campaign war chest and the Republicans struggle to identify a candidate who can capitalize on the social discontent caused by the economic hardships, the 2012 election remains Obama’s to lose.