Political Animal


September 19, 2012 3:16 PM The Slowly Improving Obama Landscape

By Ed Kilgore

As I indicated this morning, I’m not buying any “the presidential race is over!” talk just yet, until I see a lot more empirical evidence.

So if you (a) don’t think the President’s convention bounce is going to persist in any significant way (and there is growing evidence it may not), and (b) also don’t think Mitt’s multiple errors during the last week or so will matter in the end, how would you assess the race?

One series of takes is being offered this week by my favorite conservative number-cruncher, Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics, who published a “why Obama should be favored” post this morning, to be followed by a “why Romney should be favored” piece tomorrow.

Today’s Trende analysis is interesting because he revisits six factors that led him back in January to conclude Obama had a nearly impossible task ahead of him. Now he concludes all six factors show at least some improvement in the incumbent’s situation:

1) Job approval. [In January] I wrote that “presidents rarely win many votes of those who disapprove of their performance in office. In other words, Obama probably needs to be pretty close to 50 percent approval on Election Day to secure re-election.” At the time, the president’s job approval was 46.8 percent.
Today, the president’s job approval stands at 49.2 percent. If this is true on Election Day, he’ll have a good chance of winning….
2) The economy. In January, the trends in the economy placed it somewhere between 1992 and 1960; it was solidly in the middle of years where incumbent parties lost their grip on the White House. A few days after that piece was published, the January jobs data exploded.
When I re-ran the analysis late last month, Obama’s position had improved a bit. The economy was beginning to look more like 1992, 2004 and 1976, which were very close elections….
3) Head-to-head polling. Back in January, the president was polling well below 50 percent in head-to-head surveys, both in the states and nationally. He was at 47.5 nationally, and at or below 47 percent in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina, Colorado, and Nevada.
Perhaps reflecting the improved economy, that has changed. The president is at 48.5 percent nationally — just below the 49 percent he probably needs to win when you figure in third parties.
In the battleground states that I listed, he is at 49 percent in Pennsylvania, 48 percent in Michigan, 48.2 percent in Wisconsin, 48.5 percent in Ohio, 45 percent in North Carolina, 47.5 percent in Colorado, and 49 percent in Nevada. That is a strong polling position in almost all of those states.
4) Precedent.…. [I]t should concern Romney somewhat that he hasn’t been able to claim a lead in polling averages in almost a year now.
5) Contingencies. One of the main reasons that I thought Obama was in such deep trouble in early 2012 was that a number of large, negative contingencies loomed on the horizon. In fact, I probably would have bet a decent sum of money that at least one of the following three things would occur this year: (a) a Eurozone implosion; (b) gas eclipsing $5 a gallon; (c) Israel attacks Iran over its nuclear weapons program.
Somewhat amazingly, all three cans have been kicked down the road. And while there are many signs that the economy really might be softening right now, it is probably too late for that to affect the election. The economy is probably fully priced in at this point….

Only after covering these “fundamentals” does Sean go on to observe a sixth factor, which is soaking up most of the talk right now: Mitt Romney is a really, really bad candidate.

Now as regular readers know, I put much greater emphasis on messaging and the relationship of candidates to both base and swing voters than do either “fundamentalists” who consider campaigns irrelevant, or even careful empiricists like Trende who aren’t prone to looking very far under the numbers. I think Romney sucks as a candidate in no small part because he can’t talk about an agenda that is guaranteed to repel swing voters, and he can’t rely on his own record because it offends his base, which in turn is increasingly furious with him for refusing to talk about his agenda. It’s a situation that calls for a world-class pol, or a lot of help from the fundamentals. The absence of the latter is making the absence of the former more obvious, and worse.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • T2 on September 19, 2012 3:47 PM:

    the key is Romney is a bad candidate, but also the Best candidate the GOP had to offer. That should tell you something. He's the best of a bad lot, a really bad lot. I've said it before....if the Republican/Conservative hierarchy liked him, he'd have been the 2008 choice - I mean everyone hate's McCain. They don't like Romney and if his own party isn't with him, who else would be?
    There is another factor not mentioned above: President Obama is the incumbent. Incumbent presidents most often win re-election, in good times or bad. Hell, Bush won a second term and he was known to be a lying idiot. You have to make a case that you'll be a better choice than the incumbent, and Romney, actually, can't make that case. Why? People hate his policies/lack of policies. And he's a robot.

  • howie on September 19, 2012 4:01 PM:

    It seems that it may be time for Romney to truly go all in and make this a turnout election by fully explaining the RR plan, repelling those swing voters, and counting on the GOP faithful to pull him through.

    I'd like this approach because I think Obama wins that battle and there would be a slim chance that the GOP would finally start to realize how bat**** crazy its platform is.

  • c u n d gulag on September 19, 2012 4:10 PM:

    What rapidly starting to become evident, is that not only is Mitt a horrible candidate, but he and Ryan are terrible at handling the MSM.

    Mitt's not used to people questioning him, only saying, "YES, SIR!"

    And Ryan's been weaned on Movement Conservatism, and grown up as a politician in the FOX, Think Tank, and talk radio echo chambers, so all he ever heard was "Aren't you our handscome charismatic young wonk! We LOVE YOU!!!"

    Now, they're on the national stage. Ands much as we complain about the MSM, they're far better news reporters than the sycophants on FOX.
    They can't handle tough questions.
    And it shows.

    They're not ready for Prime Time.

    And 6 1/2 weeks isn't enough time for them to learn what it'll take to handle the MSM competently.

  • Ron Byers on September 19, 2012 4:12 PM:

    I have never bought the widely held view that this race was Romney's to lose. To win Romney had to beat an incumbent president who started slow, but whose job performance has improved month by month. The economy has been improving, slowly to be sure, but none-the-less improving. The President has not made any major foreign policy misstep. He is well liked personally. His congressional opposition is obviously difficult to work with and dickish. Republicans and pundits want to think that Romney is the reason Republican are losing, but actually the President can make a strong case for re-election and voters don't really want to change horses without a compelling reason. The whole "this race is the Republicans to lose" argument is a sad example of mindless group think.

    To win Romney would need to make a compelling case for change. Simply saying "I am not Obama" doesn't make that case.

    To win Romney has to convince the voters that he is going to do a much better job than Obama. No one believes that he is going to be much better than Obama, if better at all. His incompetent campaign tells us all we need to know about his management abilities. The last obviously competent Republican presidental candidate was George H.W. Bush. Obvious competence just isn't a high priority for Republicans.

    To win he has to propose an economic recovery plan more likely to succeed than Obama's. Nobody I know believes cutting taxes on the rich while punishing the poor is going to do anything to help economic recovery. Only the most strident Republicans believe the Romney plan won't make things worse.

    To win Romney has to reach out to people who are not in his base. Well the Republican party's obvious war on women's reproductive rights has alienated lots and lots of women. The Republicans would have been smart to lay off contraception, but the clueless Bishops wouldn't let them. They have declared war on Hispanics. Republicans really should have pushed the Dream Act, but they decided they couldn't let Obama win anything. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. Of course, they could have gone after the growing black middle class, but they blow their dog whistles just a little too much so they have lost ground among blacks. Going after education was another dumb move that cost Romney the ability to make the marginal gains in minority groups needed to win.

    To win Romney needed to surround himself with world class advisors. Instead he has collection of yes men, a failed novelist, and a couple of foreign policy clowns who couldn't organize a 2 car parade. The President still has the team that beat Hillary Clinton in one of the hardest fought election campaigns in history. Despite being bad at party building and helping win mid-term elections, the Chicago gang is tough, seasoned and experienced at winning Presidental elections.

    This election is going just about the way I expected. The only surprise is that day after day Romney makes terrible decisions and looks bad doing it. I have never seen a candidate who didn't want to appear Presidental. To appear Presidental a candidate has to take on his own base at some point. Romney is a craven coward, unable to take on Rush Limbaugh let alone anybody else.

  • He is a robot on September 19, 2012 4:21 PM:

    I'm still navigating my town of 14,000 in a big, bright Obama/Biden tee shirt with very good response.
    I have to get a medical thing every week, and the nurses and intake staff, not normally political, immediately told me they were not happy with Romney following his remarks caught on tape.
    I was surprised--really, that people other than the political junkies such as us would even look or notice or understand--thinking there exists a most apathetic electorate.
    But, again, I keep hearing about Peggy Noonan slamming Romney. which political tals show hosts on tv seem to thing is an eclipsing moment for the failing candidate. Certainly true conservatives are reading the criticism by Bill Kristol, David Brooks and that ambiance of right wing thought!
    And I feel very good about the incumbent--our democratic president--- winning.
    The nurses were appalled and outraged by Romney, they mentioned hard working seniors, veterans, retirees, so many elderly, their parents and aunts/uncles, and the handicapped and sickly that they see--all called mouchers by this rich, out of touch Mitt Romeny-- plus the other alarming stuff he said--all insulted and/or concerned by Mitt Romeny's disdain for the average peron, and obvious lack of foreign policy skills.
    It was said that no one really knew where he stood on things, but they know now.....

    And 'quote girl' that I am, I am reminded of:

    It is the first part of intelligence to recognize our precarious state in life."
    ~~Robert Lewis Stevenson

  • T2 on September 19, 2012 4:22 PM:

    gulag makes a good point.."Mitt's not used to people questioning him"....George W. Bush was just the same. Most super rich, brought up super rich, men never have anyone tell them "no" or "you are wrong". Instead the spend their lives being told how great they are. The Mormon Church is especially known for grooming their male children as "leaders" getting favoritism their whole lives.
    IF Obama wants to go after Mitt Romney in the debates, you'll see the steam coming out of Mitt's ears, and at a point, he's liable to just take his ball and go home.
    But Obama is too shrewd to get caught overtly picking on Romney...a little pin prick here and there will do the job.

  • BillFromPA on September 19, 2012 4:25 PM:

    T2:I've never lost confidence in O's re-election since seeing the difficulty Mittens had in dispatching the lame field he faced.

  • He is a robot on September 19, 2012 4:37 PM:

    ...sorry for not using spell-check at the end of my comment.
    Great comments on the blog.

  • hells littlest angel on September 19, 2012 4:47 PM:

    I mean no offense by this, Ed, by I guess it's in your own interest as a political commentator to say that the presidential race isn't over, but the reality is that the real story here is the House of Representatives. Can Democrats win it back?

    Yes we can.

  • T2 on September 19, 2012 4:48 PM:

    how bad is it going for Mitt? Apparently a couple minutes of recording was missing from the 47% tape (malfunction of recorder or whatever), so now the Conservatives are saying that during that time, Romney "corrected" all the crap he'd been spewing up to that time. These guys are clowns.

  • Ohio on September 19, 2012 4:52 PM:

    Please consider donating to Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown, as negative ads against him by Karl Rove are making an impact. He is a really wonderful senator.
    The republican who is running for Rove and his ilk is a childish looking tea partying tool of the right wing.

  • Peter C on September 19, 2012 5:05 PM:

    Was anyone else struck by how extreme Trende's 'Contingencies' were?

    Yes, Europe is fairly dysfunctional, but a complete Eurozone implosion would have been catastrophic for the whole continent, and they do have considerable resources to prevent a collapse that would be in no one's interests.

    Gas has NEVER been $5/gallon, nor has it been on a trajectory to go that high.

    And while an Israel/Iran was is a neo-con's wet dream, the Israelis KNOW that Iran is not that close to a bomb (their centrafuges just aren't that good and Israili intelligence IS). Bibi is a dangerous loudmouth, but he's getting no encouragement from the Obama administration and won't 'go it alone'.

    It is refreshing honest to see a conservative admit his willingness to "bet a decent sum of money" in order to capitalize on the sort of world disasters which would cause pain to America and the world. Usually they make those bets quietly, cackling softly to themselves.

  • Diane Rodriguez on September 19, 2012 5:36 PM:

    Having watched Lord Small Balls be utterly inept in any appearance, private or public, I think Obama could cede 2/3 of his debate answer time and let Lord SB commit suicide.

  • walt on September 20, 2012 2:49 PM:

    You'd have to go to central casting to find a worse candidate than Romney. He's virtually a walking cartoon of insincerity and say-anything messaging. Most people don't pay attention to the details of Romney's speeches but they catch the desperation in his eyes and rictus smile. They know this guy, on some level, is not real.

    By 2016, the Republicans will face a choice: to sell this nation more extremist ideology or find a way back to reality. My suspicion is the Republican Party will be so apoplectic with rage after this year's defeat that they'll demand an even crazier candidate next time. Right now, the incentives are all in favor of the crazies. Only a devastating defeat will change that, and possibly not for another two or three election cycles.