Gleefully watching the Republicans as they cut each other up, some of my Democratic colleagues are getting their swagger back after the 2010 “shellacking.” The new thinking: a) we beat these folks before; and b) we’re going to beat them again.
Yes, even conservative pundits like Ross Douthat are complaining about the GOP field in “this underpowered race,” admitting: “They’re a B-team, and the A-team is waiting in the wings.” Conrad Black in National Review added: “Though it is distressing to be enduring such a dismal election campaign, it is not unprecedented. … There have been other candidate droughts in the past.”
But if ever there was a time to avoid overconfidence, Democrats, this is it. With over 67% of Americans telling a Washington Post poll that “things have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track,” another 80% telling Gallup they are “dissatisfied” with the state of the union, and with over five million fewer Americans working than in 2008, all incumbents could be vulnerable. We’ve just gone through three straight “wave” elections — for the Democrats in 2006 and 2008, for the Republicans in 2010. Who knows what the voters have in store for 2012? To say that we live in volatile times would be a vast understatement.
As a partisan Democrat, I’m rooting for Mr. Obama, but there are numerous problems, both visible and unforeseen, that could trip him up.
Barring the nomination of a Republican ticket of Ron Paul and Christine O’Donnell, anyone who says this election is in the bag is crazy. How could President Obama lose? Let us count the ways.
1) The president could win the national popular vote but lose a majority in the Electoral College
In 2000, for the first time since 1888, the winner of the national popular vote failed to carry the Electoral College. Al Gore won New York, Massachusetts, D.C., and California by a total of over four million votes. But he lost the key swing states of Florida by 537 votes, New Hampshire by about 7,000, and Ohio by 167,000, thus costing him the presidency in a one-state defeat. In effect, Gore’s huge margins in those coastal states were “wasted” votes. The odds are against it, but Barack Obama could get Gored in 2012.
2) The Nixon-Reagan-Bush coalition could re-assert itself
From 1968 to 2004, Republicans put together a coalition of the South, the West, suburbia, and the Farm Belt, winning seven of ten national elections — and control of the U.S. Senate for nearly half those years. That GOP coalition lost in 2006 and 2008, but heartland America and suburbia boomed big for Republicans in 2010. It’s certainly possible that President Obama could get isolated in the inner cities and coastal enclaves while losing almost everything else, a la Mondale and Dukakis in the 1980s. Maybe the Tea Party revolt of 2009-10 is for real.
3) The president could get personally blamed
With over two-thirds of Americans unhappy with the condition of the country, we can never be sure that a massive “throw-the-bums-out” mood won’t be directed at the man at the top. That certainly happened to Herbert Hoover in 1932, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and the first President Bush in 1992.
4) The president could fall victim to a “flash-crash”
In early September of 2008, John McCain had been buoyed by his successful convention, and his choice of Sarah Palin had ignited the right. He surged to a five-point lead in the early-September Gallup poll. But the financial crisis of mid-September ended the momentum in a hurry and drove the Democratic sweep in November. Could history repeat itself in 2012?
5) The European debt crisis could sink the world economy
Here the president is totally at the mercy of events. His State Department and Treasury secretary can do their best to negotiate a European rescue package, but if the negotiations fail or the package itself fails, the world economy could slip back into a severe recession with devastating consequences for the Democrats.
6) The Middle East could erupt in war and sink the world economy
Once again, the president is at the mercy of events here, as a war with Iran could shut down the production and shipment of oil, sending the price over $300 per barrel and gas prices to almost $10 per gallon. Previous oil shocks in 1973, 1979, 1990, and 2008 all led to recessions and defeat for the incumbent party in the next election.
7) The turnout among minorities and the young could fall off
President Obama inspired a record black turnout and carried the under-30 vote by 2-1, thus helping him carry normally Republican states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana, plus the key swing states of Ohio, Florida, and Colorado. That big Democratic surge was invisible in 2010. A lower turnout from the Democratic base could be fatal in a close election. Ask the supporters of Hubert Humphrey and Gore about that.
8. An independent candidate could have unforeseen consequences
John Anderson in 1980 cost Jimmy Carter at least a half-dozen states; Ross Perot destroyed the first President Bush in GOP strongholds like San Diego, Dallas, and Phoenix plus suburbia everywhere in 1992; Ralph Nader cost Al Gore Florida and New Hampshire in 2000. Who knows what effect a possible Nader, Ron Paul, Donald Trump, Mike Bloomberg, or other independent run would have?
9) The president could run a poor campaign
A scandal (see Watergate or Monica), an excessively negative or partisan campaign (see Carter in 1980), or a bad debate gaffe (see Rick Perry) could tip the balance in a tight election.
10) The Republicans could have a surprise brokered convention or run a great campaign
With many conservative journalists continually complaining about the GOP field, a new ticket would presumably excite the Republican base and capture the public’s attention. Or perhaps one of these guys might make everyone forget Lincoln, Washington, and Reagan with their brilliant eloquence and compelling vision for America’s future. Stranger things have happened; please don’t ask me what, though.
11) A Republican vice presidential choice could swing a key state
Marco Rubio could lock up Florida for the GOP; Rob Portman might do the same in Ohio. Perhaps Senator Pat Toomey or Governor Tom Corbett could help deliver Pennsylvania. These will almost certainly be the key states in 2012 and a good choice could make the difference.
12) The president’s health could falter, causing him to stand down
Not to be grim, but would any Democrat feel comfortable with Joe Biden leading the Democratic ticket? Pleasant fellow that he is, Biden’s bombed disastrously twice in presidential campaigns and the last Gallup poll gave a 43% positive rating. Hillary Clinton would almost surely be a stronger nominee than Biden, and perhaps a better running mate too.
This list is not comprehensive, as we have seen repeatedly before; the political universe is quite capable of delivering shocks that no one forecast.
In 2008, President Obama won six states that now have 91 electoral votes with less than 53%. The loss of all those states would drop him down to 268 electoral votes, two less than needed for victory. It’s not too hard to see how any one of these 12 factors alone or in combination could shift those key states by 3 or 4 points. Barring a very weak Republican ticket, 2012 should be a slugfest.