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How Obama could lose re-election

Pure political science suggests a Barack Obama victory next week. However, political intuition tempers that.

Obama has not had a rationale for re-election since at least 2010.
MinnPost photo by James Nord

From a political science perspective, President Barack Obama is strategically positioned to win re-election on Nov. 6. If all the polls are correct, Obama has well positioned himself to win the critical 270 electoral votes to win the presidency, even if he were to lose the popular vote. 

David Schultz
David Schultz

This split in the electoral vote and popular vote is a real possibility, but there are so many signs pointing to an Obama victory. He has a better ground game than Mitt Romney, he has registered more voters, delivered more early voters to the polls. He has the demographic advantage with women and people of color. All of this points to an Obama victory.

Yet for months I have said that Obama should not even be in this race. The economy should have doomed him already. Unemployment has ticked down, the GDP is up slightly, durable-goods sales are better, as is true also with home sales. But unemployment is still high, and past history suggests presidents almost always lose with numbers like this. If this coming jobs report is bad – or at least spun as bad – Obama is in real trouble, because he will not be able to explain away the economy over the last weekend where the news will key in on that.

The missing narrative

Additionally, Obama’s major failure all along has been the missing narrative. Obama has not had a rationale for re-election since at least 2010. The Democrats were trounced in 2010 because they lacked a narrative, and even today Obama, too, still lacks one. “Forward” is meaningless. Presidents need to make the case for why they deserve four more years, and Romney has correctly hammered Obama for a failure to articulate a vision for the future.

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A weak economy and no vision: This is a recipe to lose. All that has kept Obama in the race is that Romney is a weak candidate. The mistake of the first debate was that Obama made Romney look like a viable alternative.

But there is something else going on right now that is less political science and more intuition and observational. Obama does have a lead in the critical swing states, but that support may be soft and eroding.

Consider the Strib poll

Consider, for example, the Star Tribune Minnesota Poll reported Oct. 28 that gives Obama merely a 3-point lead in the state. Minnesota should never be a swing state — and if it is, Obama is in danger. There are some reasons to think the poll is accurate. The Democratic-Republican makeup of the poll is 38 percent to 33 percent, just about what I think it is in the state.

This should be cause for Obama to worry. But the land line-cellphone split of 80 percent to 20 percent probably under samples those who would support Obama. And the news of the president consolidating support among independents also suggests that the president is doing well in the state. Yet in a state where the constitutional  amendment banning gay marriage might pass, many if not most of those who support it might also vote for Romney. Obama might want to consider one more visit to the state before election day.

There are also worries for Obama nationally. The Washington Post reports the largest racial divide in the electorate since 1988. Political scientists Charles Tien, Richard Nadeau, and Michael Lewis-Beck concluded that Obama lost 5 percentage points of the popular vote because of his race. This time around they see him losing about 3 points.

They may be wrong. Many working-class whites voted for Obama begrudgingly in 2008 because of the economy. Obama has had a hard time sealing the deal with them this time around. It is possible that at the last minute they do not go for him.  There is also some evidence that the “waitress moms” – working class moms without college degrees – are not as strong supporters this time around and may waiver.

Reminiscent of Carter’s ’80 strategy

So much of Obama’s 2012 strategy (as I have noted before) is reminiscent of President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 strategy to make Ronald Reagan look like a nut. Yet in the last 96 hours of the election the race went from a tie to a Reagan blowout as millions of voters changed their minds. Reagan’s “Are you better off?” question resonated, as did the reality that the continued Iranian hostage crisis pointed to a presidency that appeared to  lack leadership. Voters liked Reagan as a person, and the disgust with the status quo was so powerful that they opted for change over status quo.

There is no Iranian hostage crisis today. People like Obama better as a person. Much early voting has taken place. But there are still 5 percent undecided voters in the swing states. Hurricane Sandy, if badly handled by the president, could further dent his leadership and competency image. And the economy and race are still factors.

Pure political science suggests an Obama victory. Political intuition tempers that.

David Schultz is a professor at Hamline University School of Business, where he teaches classes on privatization and public, private and nonprofit partnerships. He is the editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education (JPAE). Schultz blogs at Schultz’s Take, where this article first appeared.


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