Over Labor Day weekend, three different theories of the 2012 presidential race were offered, all from Team Obama.
The first theory comes from David Axelrod, and we might call it, “Our outlook is so bright we gotta wear shades!”
In Chicago, talk of unexpected events toppling Obama’s path to reelection are largely cursory. This nonchalance, by the way, is said to perturb the Windy City’s mayor, and former Obama chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who frequently warns that the president’s popularity is “defying gravity” and that the campaign must ward against its tendency toward all-knowing arrogance.
As to gravity, Obama’s team has begun preemptively making things look worse in its own polling. For at least two months, the campaign has detected a ripple in the data caused by a spike in voters identifying themselves as Democrats. The numbers that come back on self-identified Democrats don’t match, statistically, voter-registration rolls or historical patterns. This anomaly cropped up in public polls in August. Romney aides have taken careful note and don’t know what to make of it. They take comfort that Democratic voter registration from 2008 is down 800,000 while GOP registration is down less than a tenth of that. Independent registration in the same period is up 207,000. But what if independents are choosing to call themselves Democrats? What if Republicans are? What if people are lying? Obama’s analysts have decided to subtract at least 2 points from Obama’s support in every internal poll.
The Democrats are in amazing shape – so good that they do not even believe their polling.
The second theory comes from David Plouffe, and we might call it, “We should win.”
If Obama heads into early voting with 48 or 49 percent in the key battlegrounds, and a small lead, Romney will not be able to make up that deficit, Plouffe argued.
“We think these people are not going to break decidedly against us,” Plouffe said. “The fact that we’re polling at 48 or 49 in these battlegrounds is a big deal, because we’re right on the cusp of victory.”
It's less cocky than Axelrod, but it is, as Greg Sargent says, “cautious confidence.”
The third theory comes not from the mouths of Obama’s strategists, but from their actions. Consider this ad, which is running all across the country:
This ad, to me, is a big deal. Remember, there is bad blood between Team Clinton and Team Obama. And, moreover, Barack Obama ran in 2008 on the premise that not only the Bush years had been a failure, but the Clinton years had been as well. It is most peculiar indeed to see the Obama campaign wrap itself in the garment of the Clinton years.
So, why bring in Bill Clinton to make the pitch? And not only a television advertising pitch, but a pitch during the party’s precious primetime slot at the convention. The latter comes at the expense of Joe Biden, who is not going to be the headliner on any night of the convention.
The answer, I believe, is that Obama is doing very poorly among the constituency that secured victory for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 – white independent voters.
The media focuses constantly on the Hispanic vote. And while it is indeed an important constituency, it's important to keep in mind this: It is relatively small. In fact, if turnout in 2012 is roughly similar to turnout in 2008, then a one point decrease in Obama’s share of the white vote would have to be matched by a roughly nine point increase in his share of the Hispanic vote. And if Obama drops just 4 points with whites, then his 53 percent victory suddenly becomes a 50-50 toss-up, all else equal.
And therein lies Barack Obama’s core challenge: poll after poll after poll shows him dangerously underperforming among white voters. The CNN/ORC poll has him clocking in at 39 percent, the Gallup poll at 38 percent, and the Rasmussen poll at 36 percent. He won 43 percent of whites in 2008.
All of these numbers are likely too low to deliver reelection, even with strong support from non-whites. And as for non-white voters, it is worth remembering that some of them are swing voters: the Hispanic vote has toggled between 69 percent for House Democrats in 2006, 67 percent for Obama in 2008, 60 percent for House Democrats in 2010, and 53 percent for John Kerry in 2004. The Asian American vote has moved similarly.
If 2008 was a “perfect storm” for the GOP, then this year could very well see a decline in the Democratic hauls, if not among African Americans then among Asians and Hispanics. At the least, it will be very difficult to pull more votes from non-whites to match what appears to be a significant drop among white voters. Currently, Rasmussen finds Obama winning 57 percent of the non-white/non-black vote; Gallup finds him at 58 percent. Compare that to 66 percent for Obama in 2008 and 54 percent for Kerry in 2004, and you can appreciate that the non-white/non-black vote is not currently matching the high point for Democrats.
The fact that Team Obama has outsourced the pitch to somebody best described as an Obama “frenemy” suggests the president has a real problem here. And worse for them, it indicates that the two principal messengers of Team Obama, namely the president and vice president, are not capable of making the argument effectively by themselves. Indeed, the Rasmussen poll shows a whopping 50 percent of whites “strongly disapprove” of the president’s job performance. They are not going to be receptive to a message from Team Obama, but maybe Clinton can do the trick.
Over the years, Obama campaign team has always been extraordinarily bold. After all, it required a real audacity for Obama to run for president in the first place, let alone top political talent to sign up with him rather than stay neutral and avoid the wrath of the Clintons. Just as boldness can lend itself to arrogance, it is no surprise that Axelrod, and to a lesser extent Plouffe, are representing a very strong hand. But the extensive use of Clinton suggests they might just be bluffing.
Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.