October in an election year tends to be a bad month for incumbents seeking reelection. Going back fifty years, we have six decent comparisons to this cycle – 1956, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1996, and 2004. On average, the late September margin in the Gallup poll of registered voters closed by six to seven points in favor of the challenger. Only in the year 1956 did the incumbent expand his lead.
(I’ve excluded 1964 and 1976 because LBJ and Ford were not incumbents in the typical meaning of the word, and 1992 because Ross Perot’s jumping in and out of the race skewed the data.)
President Obama’s average margin in late September’s Gallup poll of registered voters was just three points over Mitt Romney, 48-45. So, history suggests he has reason to be nervous.
And perhaps more nervous than even history would advise. Obama faces three distinct problems this month.
First, and most obviously after Wednesday night: He is up against a superior debater. It is not just that Romney had an "on" night and Obama had an "off" one. Rather, this was one of the most lopsided debates in modern American history. For instance, go back to watch Kennedy-Nixon I in 1960 or even Carter-Reagan in 1980, and you will see that, while one candidate had an advantage, it was at least a competitive battle. Wednesday night belonged to Romney -- beginning, middle, and end. One could argue that Clinton defeated Dole this handily in 1996, but it is a rare spectacle indeed to see an incumbent president so thoroughly dominated. Reagan in 1984, George H.W. Bush in 1992, George W. Bush in 2004 could be said to have "lost" at least their first contests, and Gerald Ford famously said that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination in 1976, but Obama's performance on Wednesday is unique among incumbents in how uniformly awful it was from beginning to end.
This is a change of pace for the Republican party. Over the last quarter century the GOP has nominated two Bushes, a Dole, and a McCain. All were decent and honorable men, but none was nearly as articulate in debate settings as Mitt Romney, whose ability to communicate his vision for the country seemed to rival Ronald Reagan's. And, even then, Reagan struggled in the first debate of 1984, and his performance in 1980 did not obviously exceed Carter's until near the end. His famed "there you go again..." quip did not come until the final third of the debate, breaking up what had been an otherwise repetitive and unpersuasive back-and-forth between himself and Carter; and his "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" question did not come until his closing statement. So, you could very easily say that Romney's performance on Wednesday was the best from a Republican nominee since the tradition of televised debates began in 1960.
Meanwhile, Obama is not a good debater. Any non-loyalist who has watched him closely over the years knows this. He struggled in the pre-primary debates of 2007 to distinguish himself in the multi-candidate field. It was, instead, his fundraising capacity, his ability to give a great scripted speech, and his one-on-one appeal that broke him through in Iowa in late 2007. In head-to-head debates against Hillary Clinton, his responses were regularly unfocused and his demeanor often prickly – i.e. exactly what we saw on Wednesday night. He won the general election debates in 2008 in large part because he was debating John McCain, a poor debater whose candidacy was in grave danger by that point.
Actually, Obama's debate performances are quite similar to his press conferences, which he now avoids for good reason. Watching Obama on Wednesday night reminded me of his press conferences during the health care debate; I half expected him to accuse pediatricians of doing needless tonsillectomies for profit! He has two venues where he excels: a big audience where he can give a scripted speech to the anonymous masses, or a one-on-one interaction where his personal charm can win out. Debates and press conferences occupy a middle ground where he must engage in impromptu, unscripted speechifying; he has always struggled with this.
The same goes for Paul Ryan versus Joe Biden. The former, much like Romney, has a steel-trap mind when it comes to policy details; he can connect those specifics into a coherent narrative; and he can communicate all of it without seeming supercilious. And as for Biden? He often seems like a trap set by the Republican party years ago to undermine the Democrats at just the right moment.
Second, the mainstream media this month will lack the ability to control the agenda, at least to the same extent that it has during Obama’s term. The modern press is at times sycophantic of the incumbent president and at other times trying to mimic Woodward and Bernstein; it all depends on which party is in office. With a Democratic president cut from the same cloth as they, many journalists have done everything in their power to set the national conversation in ways that favor Obama. But this month, with four debates in four weeks, their ability to focus on trivialities like the “war on women,” Romney’s “bungled” response to the Middle East, his “gaffes,” and so on, will be substantially diminished. The debates are real news – and if the GOP ticket scores clean wins in them, journalists really will have no choice but to admit it.
Third, the GOP fundraising machine is set to be deployed this month. As of August 31, the Romney-Ryan campaign, the Republican National Committee, and the Restore Our Future PAC had a cash-on-hand advantage of some $61 million over Obama-Biden, the Democratic National Committee, and the Priorities USA super PAC. Moreover, this broader GOP organization has outraised its Democratic counterpart in June, July, and August.
And yet the GOP allowed the Democrats to outspend it on television during this period. But that will not be the case in October. At the very least, Republican advertisements will match Democratic ones – and it is quite possible that the GOP will outmatch the Democrats on the airwaves.
So, contrary to the conventional wisdom, Obama enters the month of October with substantial problems. And with just a 3-point lead in the polls, he really cannot afford a bad month.
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.