For three consecutive months, job growth in the United States has exceeded 200,000. For the past six months, total job growth has been about 1.2 million. The unemployment rate has dropped from over 9 percent to 8.3%. Consumer confidence about the state and direction of the economy is growing. Individuals are starting again to borrow in a big way, after several years of deleveraging. The stock market has rebounded to its highest level since the 2008-2009 collapse. If the condition of the economy is the key factor in deciding presidential elections (and recent history suggests that it is), pretty much all the major economic factors other than gasoline prices appear to be going in the right direction for the Obama re-election team.
Then throw into this mix the fact that the GOP has an uninspiring collection of candidates competing for the party’s nomination to run against Barack Obama, and in the nominating contest, voter turnout has been down from 2008 in most states. Leading figures in the Republican Party seem to be hoping for a deadlocked convention, so that a more inspiring choice can be drafted to run in Tampa, Fla. - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or some other fantasy choice. Though former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney continues to hold a big lead in delegates to that Convention, and in the number of states in which he has come out on top, and in the total popular vote so far his principal challenger, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum shows no sign at all of giving up the fight. Santorum continues to tear at Romney on a number of policy issues, and has shown strength in the South, in border states, and in the Great Plains, as well as in more rural, socially conservative areas of other states, particularly in the Midwest . Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has won in South Carolina and Georgia, and is hoping he can stay relevant in the race by winning in Alabama and Mississippi this Tuesday.
Santorum has pleaded with Gingrich to drop out so that a “true” conservative (meaning Santorum) can get that long awaited one-on-one shot at taking on Mitt Romney, since Romney has clearly benefitted from having two candidates generally seen as to his Right, divide up some of the vote that so far seems unavailable to him (the anyone but Romney vote).
Given the likelihood of an improving economy, a long, ugly GOP nominating battle that seems to be turning off voters, the natural advantages of incumbency, and the early and sustained effort the Obama campaign team has made to open field offices in battleground states, and establish targeted voter outreach using the significant financial advantage it has over the Republicans with Obama facing no challenger within his party, this should be a period of supreme confidence for the Democrats.
But there is a visible nervousness on the Obama team’s side. Campaign manager Jim Messina explored five different scenarios for how Obama could get the 270 electoral votes needed to win the U.S. presidency again . In 2008, Obama won 28 states and 365 electoral college votes against John McCain. In all of the Messina paths to 270, he barely gets to that number. It is obvious that Messina does not expect Obama to win all the states he won in 2008, and Robert Gibbs, another campaign adviser has publicly stated that the race will be very close.
Most political observers, even those sympathetic to Obama, do not believe he will win Indiana, which he carried by 1% in 2008, and North Carolina looks like an uphill battle as well (a 0.3% Obama victory in 2008). At least two of the “blue” states that Democrats have won regularly since 1988 also seem at risk - New Hampshire and Pennsylvania and possibly Wisconsin as well. Among other “red” states that shifted to Obama in 2008, Florida offers the biggest piece of the pie with 29 electoral college votes, and also appears to be an uphill battle for Obama. If Romney is the nominee and he selects Florida Senator Marco Rubio as his running mate, that could put two more Western states with high Latino percentages at risk for Obama - Colorado and Nevada. Ohio, Iowa and Virginia, all won by Obama in 2008, all appear to be toss-ups this time around. Of the nine states Obama won in 2008, that John Kerry lost in 2004, only New Mexico seems safely in Obama’s column in 2012.
Of course, if Obama wins a big popular vote margin, as he did in 2008 (7.2%), then most of the toss-up states will fall to the Democrats again. But this week, in a surprising turnaround for a daily tracking poll in a short period of time, the Rasmussen survey indicated a big falloff in Obama’s job approval rating, and for the first time in a few months, a sizable lead for Mitt Romney in a head to head matchup with Obama. Over the past few weeks, Obama has led Romney by margins of two-10 points. Now Romney leads by three.
On Monday, a new ABC/Washington Post poll confirmed the Rasmussen poll shift, showing Obama’s approval numbers underwater, and Romney with a 2 point lead over Obama. The new survey showed rising gas prices were badly damaging the president.
The Democrats thought they had a gold mine in the past few weeks after conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh unleashed a nasty attack on a female law student who had demanded that her health plan at Georgetown, a Catholic University, pay for her contraception expenses. Barack Obama condemned Limbaugh arguing that he never wanted his daughters to have to hear such language. But a liberal columnist, Kirsten Powers, accused the Left and the president of hypocrisy, since left-wing media people routinely use the same language as Limbaugh, and worse, to slam their targets - everyone from Sarah Palin to Hillary Clinton (especially during the 2008 campaign, when the media were all in the bag for Obama). It looked even worse that Bill Maher, perhaps the worst single misogynist on the Democratic side, had just announced he would contribute $1 million to the president’s Super Pac to help his re-election effort. The Right demanded the money be returned, and that Maher be condemned.
Also last week, Breitbart.com released a 20-year-old tape of Barack Obama warmly endorsing Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell, a leader of the critical race theorists, and an individual with a history of anti-Semitism and ties to Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s minister for two decades, whose anti-American rants proved an embarrassment to Obama in the 2008 campaign. One CNN reporter, Soledad O’Brien, was rude, uninformed, and accusatory in going after Breitbart editor-in-chief Joel Pollak who was a guest on her program.
Suddenly, a period in which the Left seemed to have the upper hand as a result of Limbaugh’s distasteful remarks shifted to a new playing field, where some of the Left’s media stars were themselves under siege, and others were playing defense trying to protect Obama from any new scrutiny of his past ties to radicals. Whether these two incidents were the major reason for the poll shift this week is not at all clear. But to the extent that the debate moved away from Limbaugh and onto Bill Maher and Obama, it was not helpful for Obama.
The key takeaway from all this is that while the GOP candidates may not be lighting any fires, there is still a small majority of the electorate that was never with Obama or has moved away from him and is willing to give the Republican candidate a good look.