My election Shaman paid me a surprise visit today. He was standing just outside my front door as I retrieved the mail. He rattled his beaded stick a couple of times and then said: "Focus on the cost!" He then vanished in a puff of blue smoke, leaving behind only a damp bar napkin with some smudged charts scribbled on it and a few peanut shells clinging to its corners.
I thought at first that he might have been talking about campaign finance or the pension plans in San Jose. After reflection, I am pretty sure he was talking about Jay Cost.
At this point in the election cycle, we have two kinds of information. One is indirect: how the economy is doing, how the campaign organizations are performing, etc. Those sorts of indicators are obviously grim for the Obama campaign. Obama is running against the worst economy any incumbent has suffered in a very long time. His campaign got off to as bad a start as ever I have seen.
The other is direct and includes information about how the voters are actually lining up. Here the news is not so bad on the surface. Obama is running about even with Romney and has leads in some key states like Pennsylvania. There are, however, a lot of cracks appearing in the ice. Gallup notes this:
Gallup Daily tracking indicates Barack Obama is receiving less support in the 2012 presidential election from some of the white subgroups that gave him the strongest support in 2008. These include non-Hispanic white registered voters who are 18 to 29 years old, female postgrads, and the nonreligious, among others.
Support among non-Hispanic whites has declined up and down and across the board, with the largest fall registered among younger voters.
And then there is some ominous news from North Carolina. A PPP poll finds that Obama continues to lose support among African Americans in the Tarheel state. From Business Insider:
The poll finds that Mitt Romney would get 20 percent of the African-American vote if the election were held today, compared with 76 percent for Obama. Overall, Romney has a 48 percent to 46 percent lead on Obama in the crucial swing state.
Obama received 95 percent of the support from African-Americans in North Carolina in the 2008 election, compared with just 5 percent for Republican nominee John McCain.
Not good. Now for my Election Shaman's advice, I look to the Cost. Jay Cost is the best election analyst currently writing. His only competition is Nate Silver. I would like to consult Silver more often, but the New York Times won't let me. Cost considers the polls that the MSM reads as an electoral advantage for Obama. Here is the money quote:
The president is under 50 percent in most swing state polling averages. It's not an ironclad rule that Obama cannot rise in the polls, but common sense suggests that it will be tough. He's been the president for three years – if you're not inclined to vote for him now, what will five months of a campaign do?
It's worth noting as well that most of these polls show the president getting roughly his job approval, which is all we should expect him to receive in the general election (maybe a little less). And his job approval rating has consistently been under 50 percent for two-and-a-half years.
Again, not good. It's hard for an incumbent to rise much above his polling numbers, for reasons that Cost mentions. Short of a surge for Obama due to some unforeseen event (war with Russia or Mars) or some calamitous collapse of the Romney campaign, what would one look for?
In a more recent post, Cost considers the larger dynamics. Presidential elections are determined by three things: Democratic turnout, Republican turnout, and which way the swing voters swing. In the four elections between 1996 and 2008, Democrats comprised a larger percentage of the turnout than Republicans. In 2000, the advantage was 39/45%. Bush 43 lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College. In 2004, the turnout tied at 37% each, and Bush won both the popular and electoral vote. In 2008, the Democratic advantage was 39/32%, and Obama won both easily.
What about independents?
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.
Cost estimates that if Barack Obama had won only 43% of independents in 2008, his popular vote margin would have been a mere four tenths of one percent instead of a healthy four percent. So if:
- Obama really does lose almost 60% of the independent voters in November and
- Democrats turn out in numbers similar to 2008 and
- Republican turnout remains at 2008 levels,
then the most Obama can hope for is to win by a squeaker. Another way to put that is that the election would be a tossup and I will be waiting for returns at four in the morning.
The trouble for the Obama campaign is that only the first of those possibilities is likely. Does anyone think that Democrats will be as enthusiastic about Obama this time around as they were last time? All the evidence suggests that Republicans are more energized than ever. Rasmussen, as Cost notes, has a sterling record when it comes to predicting the partisan turnout in Presidential elections. Rasmussen has the Republicans enjoying a consistent advantage in party identification.
I don't make predictions very often. My Election Shaman does, but he isn't ready yet. He does direct us toward Cost, who concludes this way:
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.
If all this is correct, the election is Romney's to lose.