Less Popular and More Electable

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, August 30, 2011


Ironically, just as he experiences a decline in his approval, the difficult economic conditions faced by the US are making it easier for Obama to win re-election. Since the Republican Party built its opposition to a larger stimulus to create jobs on the fear of inflation, Obama will not have to pay such a dear price for the high unemployment. Though incumbent presidents are always punished when the economy is stagnant, the American electorate also seems unconvinced by the economic policies advocated by Republicans.

 Thus, even if Obama continues to have low approval ratings, as long as he scores higher than the Republican alternatives, he is better positioned to win in 2012.


After the 2008 recession, as a result of the economic stimulus package, analysts debated on whether policy-makers did too much or too little to rescue the economy. Republican fiscal conservatives argued that the cost of the stimulus would be too high on fiscal discipline, making the deficit grow out of proportion and causing a rapid increase in prices. Many Democrats, including the President, argued that the stimulus was not large enough and the economy would suffer from price stagnation as a result of a depressed labour market. Because of high unemployment, the deficit would increase as a result of lower tax revenues. Liberal Democrats argued that it would make more sense to spend more even if that entailed digging a deeper hole in the fiscal deficit in the short run in order to speed up the recovery afterwards.


Recent events have proved the Democrats right. The US economy is coming dangerously close to a new recession. Inflation fears have vanished. The deficit keeps on growing as fiscal revenue remains depressed. The warnings issued by President Obama’s economic advisors have materialized while the inflation fears of fiscal conservatives proved wrong. Unfortunately for President Obama, he was not decisive enough to stand by his advisors in demanding a larger stimulus. As a result, he now commands an economy too weak to produce sufficient employment. Still, his Republican adversaries were wrong as their concerns over inflation proved unfounded. Republican presidential hopefuls will still criticize Obama for the state of the economy, but when it comes time for them to outline their plans, their focus on reducing spending will not resonate with an electorate increasingly concerned about insufficient job creation.


In addition to being less wrong than his opponents about the long-term problems of the American economy, President Obama has demographics on his side. The rapid growth of the Hispanic population combined with the strong anti-immigrant sentiment prevalent in the Republican Party give Obama a safe voting bloc. True, Hispanics do have lower turnout rates and Obama's approval among Hispanics has fallen continuously since he took office in 2009. Still, it is highly unlikely that any of the Republican candidates will be able to attract a sufficiently large Hispanic support. Thus, even if they are disappointed with the President and vote at lower rates than other ethnic groups, Hispanics will provide Obama with a large enough support base to force Republicans to either concede some states with a high Latino population or work excessively hard to win among Caucasian voters, by such a large majority as to offset the Democratic advantage among Latinos.


The same democratic advantage applies to African Americans. Though they have also had lower turnout rates in the past, African-Americans are expected to turn out in high numbers to give the first American president a second term. If Obama can energize his strongest electoral voting bloc of 2009, the youth, he will have sufficient votes to secure an electoral majority.


Yet, in planning for next year’s electoral cycle, President Obama has one reason to be concerned. The incumbent President could win a majority of votes and end up losing in the Electoral College. Because Republicans are weak in many states where the Democrats are very strong, Obama will easily carry a handful of states with a large majority. If Republicans manage to win a sufficient number of toss up states, even if by a slim margin, Obama could end up having more popular votes but fewer Electoral College votes than his Republican opponent. In 2000, President Bush won despite having received fewer votes than Democrat Al Gore, precisely because the Republican successfully concentrated their strategy on toss-up states, conceding very early states where the Democrats had a clear majority. Something similar could happen in 2012.


Less than a year before the campaign official kicks off with the Republican and Democratic conventions, President Obama should be concerned about the state of the economy. High unemployment is never good news for an incumbent President. However, as the threat of inflation — used repeatedly by Republicans to oppose an additional job-creating stimulus — has not materialized, Obama can feel confident that no Republican opponent will have a clear advantage over him in terms of being better prepared to handle the economy. If he is able to convert the election into a debate over who can better implement job-creating policies, Obama will have an advantage over his Republican rival.