With a year to go

Three years ago yesterday, Barack Obama was elected president. One year ago tomorrow, Obama will face re-election. Given this, there’s been quite a bit of speculation this week about what’s likely to happen in 2012, and while I think it’s far too early to start making predictions, a couple of noteworthy items are worth highlighting.

The problem, for lack of a better word, is that President Obama appears to be right in the middle of various projection models — his support is not quite strong enough to make him a favorite for re-election, but it’s also not quite weak enough to make him a likely loser.

This, among other things, led Nate Silver to put the president’s 2012 odds “slightly” under 50-50, assuming Mitt Romney is the Republican nominee (and assuming Obama doesn’t “find the cure for cancer”). The forecast is based in large part on the president’s approval rating and projections for economic growth (or, perhaps, lack thereof).

Jon Chait responded that Silver may be downplaying Obama’s chances, and I found Jon’s take pretty compelling.

Silver’s key assumption is that Obama’s approval rating is likely to hover around 43 percent, where it currently stands. Obama is an incumbent presiding over a terrible economy. That is typically a recipe for doom. On the other hand, the terrible economy started under his predecessor, whom large numbers of Americans continue to blame. What’s more, the opposition party remains wildly unpopular, with a majority of Floridians recently saying they believe Republicans are deliberately sabotaging the economy. The election seems to pit the immovable object against the irresistible force — except, kind of, the opposite.

The prevailing view is that an election is a referendum on the incumbent…. On the other hand, it’s possible that the unacceptability of the Republican Party will redound to Obama’s benefit. That is what I think happened in 2004. President Bush was unpopular at the beginning of the year, but he relentlessly painted John Kerry as a flip-flopper. Over the course of the campaign, Bush’s approval ratings rose from the mid-forties to just over 50 percent.

I wasn’t sure if that was right, so I checked. Sure enough, in the summer of 2004, Bush’s approval rating dropped to 47% in Post/ABC polling, 44% in Fox News polling, 45% in NBC/WSJ polling, and 46% in Gallup polling. Those aren’t great numbers, but they weren’t abysmal, either. And as it turns out, Bush’s approval rating the summer before his re-election bid wasn’t much different than President Obama’s current approval rating. Bush had a few months to see his support grow; Obama has a year.

And why did Bush’s support grow from the mid-40s to the low-50s? Chait argued, persuasively, that voters starting seeing the president “within the context of a partisan choice,” and decided they liked him more after taking a look at the wealthy Massachusetts challenger with an awkward personality and who was often accused of flip-flopping.

Ahem.

Republican-leaning voters who weren’t sold on Bush — weak economy, awful job growth, etc. — became more inclined to support him after evaluating the alternative. Could that happen again with Democratic-leaning voters and Obama? Of course it can. As Chait put it, the president “has a chance to have his approval rating rise simply by drawing a sharp contrast against the Republican nominee. In other words, incumbent approval rating isn’t something that’s independent of the opposing candidate. Voters may shape their view of the incumbent by making a comparison.”

If Republicans were a popular party with a popular agenda, this would be a very different story. Likewise, if Obama were a poor campaigner facing a charismatic GOP frontrunner, I’d have a different set of expectations. But I’ve seen a lot of Obama political obituaries, and at this point, none of them have proven persuasive to me.