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How Obama could lose re-election

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

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.

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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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Deb Reed on 10/30/2012 - 09:28 am.

    Obama because

    He will win because Mitt is a liar, and a flip flopper! People want the truth, even when it hurts. Mitt doesn’t even know what that is! Obama has done okay considering what he was up against when he took office, Just because he didn’t fulfill all his promises doesn’t mean he didn’t try!!! We all know the party of “NO” was just out to stop him and that is the simple TRUTH! OBAMA 2012!!!!

    • Submitted by Jason Quam on 10/30/2012 - 01:34 pm.

      Mitt the Liar??


      • Submitted by Robert Helland on 10/30/2012 - 06:04 pm.

        Contradictions & Doublespeak & Hypocrisy

        If the president had come out and said, “This was a coordinated, dual attack on our consulate and a CIA detachment which left four Americans dead.” You’d likely be decrying his actions as “intelligence leaks”. Can you think of any possible reasons to withhold specific information about the attack? What do you want the president to do, “show his hand” or “bluff” or “pass the bet”?

        Example: Mitt/GOP: “Iran is four years closer to a bomb.”

        Try: “Stuxnet. Olympic Games. Flame… and who knows what other coordinated cyberattacks we don’t know about and on-ground-espionage and sabotage that has set them back years.”

        Whoops: “Intelligence leaks! Can’ talk about that… convict him for treason.”

        The absurdity of Republican contradictions, double-speak and hypocrisy requires three synonyms just to capture its essence. Plus, they have no foreign policy…

        RNC Foreign Policy = American ‘Exceptionalism’ = Holier than Thou = Our God > Your God = May The Flames of Hell Rain Down on You

        Also, what’s the point? Does it make the president look any worse if it is 20 coordinated armed men or a protest for a movie? What is the reason folks like yourself are driving this “lie” rhetoric, what do you think he gets out of it, or what “face” does it save? It’s a travesty and tragedy either way, so what’s gained by “lying”?


  2. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/30/2012 - 09:40 am.


    I think you’re thinking too hard about this. You can make a rational case one way or the other. The problem is…the American voting public, as a group, isn’t rational. You can’t explain why we vote because we don’t even know. People who vote for or against Obama because of his race are probably under counted because many won’t even admit to themselves that they have a preference for a certain skin tone in the White House. (Hey, I admit I was proud that we had our first black president, even though that’s not why I voted for him.)

    I think we’d do better at predicting elections by studying mob mentality, not political insights. After all, large numbers of voters on both sides are basing their votes on lies. Some more than others (a lot more). If the voting public was rational, that would be somewhat rare, especially in an age where facts are available with a few taps on a keyboard. The biggest decider in any given election is going to be who can most successfully manipulate the truth.

    Fortunately, there is a percentage of people who don’t forget quite as quickly as most, and will tell you that the economy is still weak because Congress failed to act as a functional governing body–the Democrats (including Obama) gave an inch (naive, looking back on it) and the Republicans dragged their carcasses a mile. Now…who’s to blame for that? I’d rather believe that a lesson was learned than vote for political savages and scavengers.

  3. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 10/30/2012 - 03:38 pm.

    It’s polical science, not rocket science…

    “Yet for months I have said that Obama should not even be in this race. The economy should have doomed him already.”

    Imagine how annoyed you’ll be if he wins. (g)

  4. Submitted by Robert Helland on 10/30/2012 - 05:48 pm.

    Underwhelming Analysis

    While I usually find Professor Schultz analysis intriguing and fresh, I found this article highly underwhelming. It seemed schizophrenic at worst and like an “I told you so” analysis no matter what the outcome at best. Par for the course for a political science observer and professor; not very bold or fresh and a dose of CYA. “The economy should have doomed him already.” The economy should have doomed us all and we’re nowhere near clear of the woods!

    As for the Romney-Reagan tactic, “Are you better of now?” This is a non-question, a non-choice. Are you better off than what, four years of no Barack Obama, a leaderless ship of state adrift in an ocean of recession and Congressional ineptitude?

    The real question of this national presidential election that no one is asking out of dignity and humility for an elderly man is: WHAT WOULD THE WORLD LOOK LIKE IF JOHN MCCAIN HAD WON IN 2008?

    Somebody, please ask this question, elevate THIS choice to the national debate, the national consciousness.

    Yeah… if you get that same shiver down your spine as I thinking of your answer, join me in voting for Barack Obama and Joe Biden for another four years of opportunity.


  5. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 10/30/2012 - 09:54 pm.

    Four more years just like the last two

    I might have to agree that race is a factor in that a white President in this same situation wouln’t be in the race. Whatever percentage of the population that voted for President Obama just because of his skin color certainly won’t bail on him over a bad economy and the “white guilt” that so many carry won’t let themselves vote for someone else. Same Congress and same President means more of the same for the next four years. How far can we keep kicking the can?

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