The next presidential election is about fifteen months away. And even though the outcome is highly uncertain, we nevertheless can get an early read on the “fundamentals”--and these do not look good for President Obama.
First, a little historical background. From 1936 until about 1984, Democratic partisans vastly outnumbered Republicans in the broader electorate. This meant that GOP nominees not only had to win their base, they also had to do extremely well among independents and carry a good number of Democrats. However, with the success of the Reagan administration, the percentage of Democrats in the electorate began to decline. Today, it is only marginally higher (if at all) than GOP voters.
Thus, both parties have roughly the same two goals in a presidential election: turn out as many partisans as possible and win the independent vote.
This gives us two good metrics to begin looking at Obama’s prospects. Let’s start with the independent vote.
The Gallup poll offers a weekly breakdown of self-identified independents in the adult population. This is a good metric to determine how the president is doing with this critical bloc:
As you can see, the results are not good for the president. He fell below 50 percent with independents in the summer of 2009, and since the winter of 2010, he has struggled to stay above 45 percent.
It is worth pointing out that, in the last forty years, no president has ever been elected in a predominantly two-way race with less than 48 percent of the independent vote. (That was George W. Bush in 2004.)
What about Obama’s partisan base? The spin leading up to and after the 2008 election was that the president was transforming the electorate by converting new voters, independents, and “sensible” Republicans into Democrats. How has that turned out?
Let’s again look to the Gallup poll, which tracks the partisan identification of American adults. Below is a historical trend-line of the proportion of the adult population who identify as Democrats and Republicans.
The data point in each graph is the closest poll taken to Election Day. As you can see, in 2010 the percentage of adults calling themselves Democrats was at its lowest point in fifty years.
We can take all of the data we have reviewed so far and merge it into a very rough estimate of the president’s electoral standing. Over the last decade, Democrats have won about 90.5 percent of the Democratic vote and 7 percent of the Republican vote. Let’s assume that Obama wins the same amount. Let’s also assume that he wins a share of the independent vote equal to his approval in the Gallup poll.
That leaves one variable to account for: the percentage of Republicans, Democrats, and independents in the electorate. Let’s use three models. First, a “Very Democratic Electorate,” where partisan identification breaks down similar to 2008 (39 percent Democratic, 29 percent independent, and 32 percent GOP). Next, a “Slightly Democratic Electorate,” where partisan identification breaks down similar to 2006 and 2000 (38.5 percent Democratic, 26 percent independent, and 35.5 percent GOP). Finally, an “Even Electorate,” where partisan identification breaks down similar to 2004 and 2010 (36 percent Democratic, 28 percent independent, and 36 percent GOP).
Using these three models, we can estimate Obama’s reelection support based on changes in the Gallup poll among independents.
As you can see, under anything less than a very Democratic electorate, Obama’s support among independents has been too soft to secure reelection for nearly two years. As for the more optimistic scenario for the president, even here the race has essentially been a toss-up for the last year or so. And, without a noticeable change in the trends on partisan identification, it is hard to envision such a pro-Democratic electorate emerging next year.
Finally, what about the campaign? Could Obama be expected to regain his edge when he takes his positions to the voters? It is possible, of course, yet winning the campaign argument seems easier said than done for the president at this point.
Obama’s job approval at the moment is relatively weak – as of this writing, the RealClearPolitics average has it at 45.4 percent. What should worry the Obama team more is how much worse the president’s support is when it comes to particular issues, especially those that are of top concern to voters.
Consider the AP-GfK poll, taken last month. It showed his overall job approval rating at 52-47. However, on the issues that respondents listed as “extremely” or “very important,” it tended to be much worse.
How well can the president fare in a campaign that is dominated by issues on which he is extremely unpopular?
At this point, Obama is a prisoner to events. He needs a substantial, noticeable improvement in the economy, specifically as independent voters experience it, to have a decent shot at reelection. And beyond that, his health care bill remains extremely unpopular, and the deficit is bound to remain an issue next year. So, he has a lot of fundamental challenges. Assuming that his macro-position does not improve (and the Republicans nominate a reasonably acceptable candidate), the data at this point indicate that he would have a very difficult time winning reelection next year.