Photo: The White House
Blogger Mickey Kaus noted the other day that in the course of the last two weeks, the conventional wisdom on President Obama’s re-election chances went from “can’t lose” to “just might.” Peggy Noonan kicked off the switch with her column in the Wall Street Journal 10 days ago. Since then, others have warbled Noonan’s tune.
So which is it? Is he a lock or is he in deep trouble? By the best available measure, the answer is: deep trouble.
Begin at the beginning. Presidential elections take place in an environment either hostile to the incumbent (say, 1980) or helpful to the incumbent (say, 1996). The way that presidential campaigns measure the political environment was established decades ago by Richard Wirthlin, Ronald Reagan’s pollster and one of the great political strategists of his day.
Mr. Wirthlin, in every political poll he ever took, always asked one question at the very top: Do you think the country is going in the right direction or do you think it is off on the wrong track? He said that the “right direction/wrong track” measure could tell you pretty much everything you needed to know about how a presidential campaign would turn out on Election Day.
In 1980, the right track/wrong direction question showed that more than 70% of the nation’s voters thought the country was off on the wrong track. The incumbent was tossed, getting only 40% of the vote. In 1992, by the time of the major party nominating conventions, the “wrong track” number was again near 70 per cent. The incumbent got less than 40 per cent of the vote in the November election. In 2008, “wrong track” was again into the 70 per cent range again and the incumbent party (the incumbent was term-limited) was voted out by a wide margin. As measurements go, “right track/wrong direction” has been a very reliable precursor of the eventual outcome.
So where is the “right track/wrong direction” measurement at today? Roughly 70 per cent. And it has been getting worse of late, not better. The wider the negative spread, the less likely it is that President Obama will be re-elected.
Well, you might say, you can’t beat someone with no one! True enough. But in a bad environment (for the party in power), you don’t need a great candidate to beat the incumbent. You just need a credible candidate.
If you woke up every power broker in the United States of America in the middle of the night and said: “President Obama is dead and Mitt Romney is the new president,” those power-brokers might be confused but they wouldn’t be particularly alarmed. If you woke up the average American voter in the middle of the night and said the same thing, they too might be confused, but they’d go back to sleep quickly.
That’s all the Republicans have to produce: someone who when you put the word “President” in front of their last name, doesn’t cause voters to have anxiety attacks. If the GOP can produce that candidate, then they can spend the rest of all of their resources framing the election as a referendum on the incumbent.
If the “right track/wrong direction” findings remain as bad as they are today, President Obama would lose that referendum, decisively. As it stands today, 45% of the nation’s voters say they will “definitely” vote against him. Only 28 per cent say they will “definitely” vote for him.
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