While eyes are on the Republican nomination fight, I’m getting the impression that 2012 could not only see President Obama staying in office, but perhaps winning big.
Here are the electoral vote totals from each year since 1960:
1960 – John F. Kennedy (D) – 303
1964 – Lyndon B. Johnson (D) – 486
1968 – Richard M. Nixon (R) – 301
1972 – Richard M. Nixon (R) – 520
1976 – Jimmy Carter (D) – 297
1980 – Ronald Reagan (R) – 489
1984 – Ronald Reagan (R) – 525
1988 – George H.W. Bush (R) – 426
1992 – William J. Clinton (D) – 370
1996 – William J. Clinton (D) – 379
2000 – George W. Bush (R) – 271
2004 – George W. Bush (R) – 286
2008 – Barack H. Obama (D) – 365
Right now President Obama’s approval ratings are still below 50%, and coming off big electoral victories in the 2010 off year election many Republicans have been eager for 2012, believing they can retire President Obama early. He was an inexperienced Senator elected in part as a fluke, they believe, thanks to the 2008 economic crisis and President Bush’s extreme unpopularity. In 2010 as “tea party” Republicans espoused more extreme version of anti-government sentiment, they added that in 2008 John McCain didn’t really represent the values the GOP stood for. He had been in favor of immigration reform and too much a moderate maverick. They hoped for a Reaganesque figure to do in 2012 what Reagan did in 1980 – demolish an incumbent deemed ineffective. 2012 was to be 1980 redux.
It may be more like 1984 or 1996. In 1982 the Democrats had strong off year elections and President Reagan’s approval was low. In 1994 Newt Gingrich led the Republican “Contract with America” campaign that surprisingly took control of the House away from the Democrats. Two short years after the ‘man from Hope’ had inspired the country it looked like Clinton was on his way out.
I noted before that Mitt Romney is sometimes eerily reminiscent of Walter Mondale, who Reagan easily defeated in 1984. Like Bob Dole, who had the 1996 candidacy against Clinton, Romney is an insider who is coming to the nomination by strength of endorsement and inside the beltway politics.
Ronald Reagan’s low was 35% in January 1983. It stayed low through August, when he stood at 43%. By the start of 1984 it had risen to 52%. 1984 was a recovery year. President Reagan had a state of the art campaign and image machine, and he could deliver brilliant speeches. By the middle of the year he was at 55%, and up to 60% approval when he defeated Walter Mondale.
Bill Clinton was down at about 40% in mid 1995. When 1996 started he, like Reagan in 1984, was hovering around 52%, making Republicans optimistic that they could make Clinton a “one termer.” But like Reagan, he was running in a year of economic recovery and was a superb campaigner. His approval numbers rose steadily in 1996 to 57% approval on election day.
Barack Obama’s low was 43% in early 2011. Now he sits at 46%. That’s six points below where Reagan and Clinton were at the same time. Though his trend has shown improvement, it’s coming later. This is one reason to think that this isn’t like 1996, Obama’s not had the uptick at the end of the year Clinton had.
Nonetheless economic statistics show a recovery has started, President Obama is a great campaigner, has a superb campaign team, and the Republicans appear unenthusiastic about their likely candidate Mitt Romney. If Obama’s approval ratings start to rise early this year, he could be on his way to easy re-election.
Obama is more like Reagan and Clinton than like one termers Carter and Bush I. Like Reagan and Clinton, Obama is seen as inspiring and ‘larger than life,’ having run with the goal of changing Washington. Those themes also inspired Reagan and Clinton. None of Obama’s opponents espouse an optimistic visionary effort to change America. Mitt Romney is an insider talking about his competence and experience, while the most visionary challenger is Newt Gingrich, who is more a blast from the past with baggage than a new voice and vision. Where Reagan was optimistic and exuded hope, Gingrich exudes anger and arrogance.
President Carter had also won with a vision of change, and up through the 1980 campaign it appeared that Carter would likely eek out a narrow victory. Bad news cycles, a late debate won by Reagan, and continued economic woes turned the election south for Carter at the very end. Reagan won by a landslide.
If Obama has the kind of foreign policy problems Carter had (the Iranians had been holding US citizens hostage in the embassy for a year when the election occurred), if the economic recovery goes bust and things get worse rather than better in 2012, Mitt Romney could win by a landslide.
But if the economic recovery continues, even if it’s slow, his campaign can take control of the conversation and remind voters why they liked him in 2008. If there is a real perception that things are getting better, Obama should equal or near the electoral vote totals he got in 2008, or that Clinton got in each of his elections. I don’t think any Democrat is likely to break the 400 barrier; too many states are firmly Republican.
So I’m putting my predictive abilities publicly on the line and predicting an easy win for Obama in 2012, with the fights for the House and Senate likely the big stories. It’s not a prediction to take to the bank – the economy is still vulnerable, and war with Iran or something like that could make everything higgly piggly. But despite what the pundits say, I think Obama enters 2012 in much better shape than most people realize.