The Death of Bin Laden and Obama's Re-Election Prospects

We are a bit less than 18 months out  from the 2012 presidential election, and the GOP field has no front-runner. A few of the GOP’s announced contenders or possible candidates have national name recognition (Romney, Gingrich, Trump, Huckabee, Palin, Paul), but others (Pawlenty, Daniels, Cain, Bachmann, Santorum) do not. As a result, the best indicator of how the president is doing in his re-election bid is to look at his approval ratings  and how he fares against a generic (unnamed) Republican opponent.

The Obama campaign, aiming to raise a billion dollars or more, has gotten off to a fast start, with a national fundraising swing to attract contributions  from wealthy Democrats in New York, California, Illinois, and Texas, among other states.

Then on May 1 came the announcement of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

A barrage of instant polls conducted on one day or over two days seemed to show the president got a big boost in his approval rating (Quinnipiac, CBS/New York Times, Washington Post/SRBI), moving from the high 40s to levels in the 50s. Then came an Associated Press-GfKpoll that showed the president at 60% approval, a level not reached since early in his term in 2009. The Associated Press poll was criticized for oversampling Democrats (46% versus 29% for Republicans).

Meanwhile, the two polling groups which conduct surveys every day (or almost every day) -- Rasmussen and Gallup -- showed more modest gains for the president. Both of these surveys revealed the president’s approval ratings rising even before the announcement of bin Laden’s death. This was likely due to the release of President Obama’s long-form birth certificate, which seemed to take the air out of that issue and the Trump campaign.

Gallup had the Obama approval level rising to 52%, and tailing off slightly since (50% on May 13); Rasmussen showed a bump to 51%, now back down to 47%. The 47% approval rating for Obama in the latest three-day Rasmussen survey released on May 13 is a point below the level recorded on Election Day in 2010, a day that was a serious setback for congressional Democrats. In addition, both of the daily pollsters showed Obama with small leads (2-3%) over a generic Republican nominee, with the Obama re-elect number only in the low 40s, even after the boost from the raid.

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, anticipating that the bump in Obama’s approval rating would  be transitory, wrote that the short-term bump was expected, given the history of polling results after significant foreign policy developments in the past, and that a gradual fallback to lower levels was to be expected, especially given the state of the economy.

Mellman predicted  that "President Obama would get a single-digit bump":

• It would come disproportionately from Republicans and independents.

• It would be greater if there was unanimous praise for the president’s action and less if press and congressional commentary revealed divisions.

• Given the economic situation, the gains were likely to be transitory.

Mellman also pointed out the biggest change in Obama’s approval numbers was in his handling of the war on terror, the war in Afghanistan, and foreign policy in general. Opinion on Obama’s management of the economy remained decidedly negative.

Mellman’s analysis points to one critical way in which the bin Laden death will help the president. Prior to the  event, the president was being criticized for, at times, incoherent and inconsistent foreign policy. This culminated in Ryan Lizza’s quote from one Administration official in a New Yorker article that the president wanted “to lead from behind." The Libya mission began while the president was toasting Brazil for its offshore oil and gas exploration, and the president’s talk to the nation upon his return did everything possible to suggest that we were part of a group of nations (NATO command) acting with UN approval and that the U.S did not have a major role in the fighting.