Don’t Start Planning Obama Inauguration Yet

by Stuart Rothenberg May 11, 2011 · 10:58 AM EDT

While few are saying it openly, many I talk with sound as if there is no need to wait until November 2012 to declare President Barack Obama winner of a second term.

Given the killing of Osama bin Laden, the expected $1 billion war chest of the president’s re-election campaign, the less-than-intimidating Republican presidential field and the controversial GOP Congressional initiative proposing substantial changes in Medicare and Social Security, it isn’t surprising that many are skeptical of GOP prospects.

But there are so many dark clouds on the horizon that the president is only an uncomfortably slight favorite for a second term as we enter the spring.

Until the news of bin Laden’s death, Obama’s job approval numbers looked weak. They are likely to return to those levels over the next few months unless other good news improves the public’s underlying mood of pessimism.

Surveys, pollsters like to say, are mere snapshots of public opinion, and polling conducted immediately after a major news event usually is nothing more than a photograph of the public’s reaction to that event, whether good or bad.

As we all expected, the president has received a nice bump after the bin Laden news, but when Americans turn their attention back toward the underlying state of the nation, the president’s job approval numbers will slide back to about where they were before May 1.

Actually, this same process already happened at the end of 2010 and early in 2011.

Obama’s job approval ratings, according to Gallup, shot up to 51 percent approve/41 percent disapprove in mid-January after the successes of the lame-duck session of Congress and the president’s performance following the Tucson, Ariz., shootings on Jan. 8.

But by the end of April, Obama’s ratings had fallen back to 45 percent approve/47 percent disapprove, almost right where they were in late October 2010.

Other polls confirmed the trend. The CBS/New York Times poll found the president’s January job rating of 49 percent approve/39 percent disapprove slipping to 46 percent approve/45 percent disapprove in mid-April, while the ABC/Washington Post survey showed his 54 percent approve/43 percent disapprove ratings in mid-January plunging to 47 percent approve/50 percent in mid-April.

These dips weren’t unexpected, and I wrote in this space back in late January why the president’s mid-January standing in the polls might be nothing more than a “bear market rally” for him rather than a fundamental shift in voter sentiment about his presidency.

The bubble created by the accomplishments of the lame-duck session and the sense of national unity following the Tucson shootings burst because the nation’s fundamentals remained unchanged. So as soon as people refocused on the nation’s challenges (e.g., rising gas prices and the deficit), the president’s poll numbers returned roughly to where they had been around Election Day.

That’s almost certainly going to happen again unless, of course, there is more good news — economic news — around the corner. Unfortunately for the White House, an unemployment rate of 9 percent and high gas prices don’t quality as good news.

Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones suggests that Obama’s 10th quarter in office “could be a telling sign for his re-election chances,” which at the very least suggests that Jones believes the president’s prospects for a second term are uncertain.

The right direction/wrong track numbers have been equally bad. Depending on which polls you prefer, one-quarter to one-third of Americans think the country is headed in the right direction. These numbers are much worse than the ones pollsters got during the mid-December to mid-February bubble, and they are as bad, or in most cases a few points worse, than polls conducted in October.

I looked at other survey data, of course, including Congress’ job rating and party identification, but nothing suggests that Obama’s re-election is, at this point, more than a jump ball.

What about the thin GOP field and “the map”?

Yes, the Republican field looks unimpressive overall. But it’s hard to measure up to a sitting president, particularly one who is by any definition a historic figure with charisma and unmatched fundraising prowess.

Still, elections are often referendums, not choices, as we have seen recently. If voters want change, they are inclined to look for something different. Democratic Congressional candidates were different in 2006, Obama was different in 2008, and Republican candidates were different in 2010.

So assuming that voters feel next November as they do today about the president, Republicans can win in 2012 if they succeed in making that election a referendum on Obama’s performance in office and if they nominate a candidate who is broadly acceptable to the electorate, even if he doesn’t have all of Obama’s skills and assets. (Obama’s campaign, of course, will attempt to make the election a choice rather than a referendum if voters are unhappy with the president.)

While the Republican field looks thin, there are a number of candidates now in the race who pass the “smell test” and could win if the electorate’s desire for change is strong enough next year, assuming they run strong races.

The presidential election map of 2012 says the same thing.

There are probably six or eight true Tossups if we have a close presidential election next year. The list includes Colorado and Nevada in the West, Virginia and North Carolina in the South and Ohio and Iowa in the Midwest.

If you feel like adding a few other states, possibly Florida and New Hampshire, go ahead. Please don’t add Indiana or Missouri, both of which certainly lean Republican.

If the president starts with 247 electoral votes and a credible GOP nominee starts with 191, the election will turn on eight states — eight politically competitive states that can go either way depending on the overall dynamics of the political environment and of the election.

By any definition, that makes the presidential map definitely “in play,” at least at this point.

Finally, since nobody knows what sort of events will happen between now and the fall of 2012, it’s hard to know how the president and his Republican opposition will be affected by circumstances.

The killing of bin Laden is obviously an asset for Obama, and I’m sure we will hear about it often during the campaign. But between now and the fall of 2012, many other developments will define our politics and our politicians. Given all of these considerations, the 2012 Republican nomination looks more valuable than many people now seem to understand.