President Obama’s gaffe in Friday’s press conference caught the attention of the media, the blogosphere, and the public in general. I thought it was a telling example of how bad this president is at communicating when he is off script, but there is a bigger story to tell.
The president was out there, once again, promoting the American Jobs Act. This bill is basically a huge payoff to Democratic constituent groups – notably organized labor, which would benefit enormously from federal grants to states to keep government workers on the payroll, as well as construction projects to be completed by union job crews.
This bill has no chance of passing through the United States Congress. The Republican party is never going to vote to hike taxes to pay off Democratic client groups. It never has, and it never will. What’s more, the politics of this bill do not play very well with the middle of the country – as Republicans can always point out (correctly), the American Jobs Act is a watered-down version of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (i.e., the stimulus that the country thinks was a failure).
So why, then, is the president still insisting on this package?
He has trouble with his base.
Just as with the flip-flop on gay marriage, Obama’s press conference on Friday was supposed to be a symbolic gesture to remind the core constituencies of the Democratic party that he is their friend. (This is also why he’ll never flip-flop on the Keystone Pipeline.)
Now, to be clear, when I say “trouble with his base,” I do not mean the Democratic party is set to abandon him en masse. No party has won less than 45 percent of the two-party presidential vote in the last quarter century, thanks to the rock-solid nature of both bases.
Instead, the problem is at the margins, which is where electoral politics is inevitably played. In 2008 the Democratic base was marginally more excited than it was in 2004, while the GOP base was marginally depressed. These small changes added up to an enormous effect. Consider this chart of party turnout in presidential elections going back to 1996:
The shift from ’04 to ‘08 was not large, but it added up to a decisive victory for Obama.
But this points to Obama’s problem today: With a reversion back to the 2004 levels of Democratic and Republican turnout, this president is sunk. Election night would be an early one.
That’s because Obama is doing terribly with the independent vote. If the level of partisan turnout is the first important variable in deciding who wins, then the swing of the independent vote is the second.
And independents do not approve of President Obama. According to the Gallup poll, the president has pulled in just 43 percent support from independents over the last month, and just 36 percent of “pure independents,” i.e., those with no ties at all to either party. Worse, as this analysis from Alan Abramowitz suggests, the swing vote shows no signs of warming up to the president any time soon. Indeed, according to the Gallup poll, the president has not been above 50 percent with independents since November 2009.
What would happen to the president if he pulls in only 43 percent of the independent vote? We can get an answer to that question by simulating the last four presidential elections. What we will do is hold constant the turnout and vote shares from Republican and Democratic base voters, then see how the Democratic candidate would have done had he received only 43 percent of the independent vote.
This is quite a shift. If Democrats had managed just 43 percent of the independent vote in 1996 and 2008, their huge victories would have shrunk down to mere toss-ups; their narrow popular vote victory in 2000 would have become a defeat; and their narrow loss in 2004 would have been a huge defeat.
Thus, we can conclude that, if the independent vote holds roughly where it has been for the last two years, Obama will need that 2008 Democratic turnout edge just to keep the race a toss-up.
How will the Democratic base perform in November? It is impossible to say for sure, but there is solid evidence that points to trouble on the left flank.
The first piece of evidence is the Rasmussen poll. Liberal Democrats and their allies in the media have basically shut Rasmussen out of the conversation, simply because they do not like its results. But the Rasmussen poll’s historical results are very solid, especially when it comes to measuring the partisan tilt of the country. It called turnout on the nose in 2008 – forecasting the Democrats with a 7-point edge – and was very close in 2004 – calling for a Democratic edge of just 1.5 points (the final result that year was an even split between the two sides).
For the last 18 months, Rasmussen has typically found the Republicans with an edge in party identification. This comports well with its “Presidential Approval Index,” which tracks the level of intensity among those who approve and those who disapprove of President Obama’s time in office. Rasmussen consistently finds the strong disapprovers outnumbering the strong approvers by 10 to 20 points.
The second piece of evidence is the Wisconsin recall vote. The GOP had a money edge (although the size of it was much less than what liberal pundits are now claiming), but the Democratic base had been directly attacked by Scott Walker’s reforms. So, we should have expected Democratic turnout to maintain itself at its historical levels.
But that is not what happened. In fact, in Democratic-leaning Wisconsin, Republican voters actually outnumbered Democrats, something we have only seen previously in lower turnout midterm elections:
All of this suggests that it is the Republican base vote that is more energized than its Democratic counterpart, at least at the moment. Hence Team Obama's continued efforts to curry favor with the vast array of interests that comprise the core Democratic vote.
If that holds up over the next five months, and independents do not warm up to the president, Obama is going to lose. It won't be a 1980- or 1984-style blowout, but it will look similar to what we saw in 1988 and 2008. That's what happens with a lukewarm party base and broad opposition from independent voters.
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.