Is Obama an underdog in 2012?

at 06:51 AM ET, 09/21/2011

A look around the political landscape paints a grim picture for President Obama’s re-election prospects.


President Obama makes a point during remarks at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's awards gala in Washington, September 14, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
To wit:

* The unemployment rate stood at 9.1 percent in August, nearly two points above the highest that number has ever been and seen an incumbent president win a second term. Even the most optimistic economic prognosticators acknowledge that the unemployment rate is unlikely to drop in a significant way prior to November 2012.

* Obama’s job approval rating in the latest Gallup weekly tracking poll stood at 40 percent; from July 20 through Sept. 20, Obama’s average job approval is 41 percent.

* Large majorities — 77 percent in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll — say the country is headed off in the wrong direction.

* Matched against the two most likely Republican nominees — Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — Obama usually finds himself in the mid-40s and in a statistical dead heat.

Numbers like that raise a basic question: Is Obama an underdog for re-election in 2012?

That depends on who you ask.

The Republican political professional class — buoyed by the factors we laid out above — has grown increasingly optimistic about their chances of beating Obama in 2012.

“Obama may not be an underdog yet, but he’s working hard to become one every single day,” said Brad Todd, a Republican media consultant. “Watching him argue for tax increases in a recession is like watching a hog beg for the butcher shop.”

And it’s not just Republicans who are beginning to see Obama as underdog. “‘Candidate’ Obama always seems to run better from behind,” said one senior Democratic strategist granted anonymity to speak candidly about such a sensitive subject. “No doubt he is the underdog at this point in time.”

Most Democrats, however, reject the construct of Obama running from behind, even while acknowledging that the incumbent’s path to a second term is rocky.

“There’s no question the president political challenges are huge,” said Democratic operative Joel Johnson. “But he is not, and never will be, the underdog in this race. Why? Because everybody knows governing is more complicated than campaigning — and these guys proved themselves the best campaigners on the planet, and that team is back.”

For its part, the Obama campaign insists that all is well despite the difficult circumstances the president has faced.

“We always expected a close and competitive election given the historic challenges that the President confronted when he came into office,” said spokesman Ben LaBolt. He added: “Americans will have the chance to decide between an agenda that restores middle class security and one that does nothing to provide opportunity for the middle class.”

Messaging aside, there are other mechanical reasons to think the Obama-as-underdog narrative may miss the mark.

Chief among them:

1) His ability to raise money. Obama collected $750 million for his 2008 race and is likely to reach, if not eclipse, that total by next year, a sum that would put him well in front of the eventual Republican nominee.

2) Obama has a lot of electoral ground to give. He won 365 electoral votes in 2008, meaning that he can shed 95 and still win re-election. To put that in perspective, if Obama lost Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana — all states he carried in 2008 — he would still win re-election by 38 electoral votes (assuming he held the rest of his 2008 map).

3) Beating someone with no one. At the moment, Obama is running against himself, since the Republican field has yet to come into focus. When Republicans do pick a nominee (or maybe even before that) Obama and his campaign team will work to turn the race into a choice between two candidates rather than simply a referendum on his first four years in office. Both Perry and Romney have records that can be mined by Democratic opposition researchers for television ad fodder.

“Both his map and his margin for error are narrower, but he’s the political talent of his generation [and] the Republican field is awfully weak,” said veteran Democratic campaign operative Jim Jordan.

Of course, if the 2010 election taught us anything it’s that mechanical advantages don’t matter if people have decided they want a change. In a binary choice, which, barring a serious third party bid is what voters will face in 2012, if you have determined that you don’t want “A”, you are choosing “B”. It’s that simple.

And so, the answer to whether Obama is an underdog for re-election really depends on whether you think 2012 will be a national wave, throw-the-bum(s)-out election (in which case he is an underdog) or a more traditional campaign where money, organization and experience all matter (in which case he isn’t).

Gallup shows Obama’s jobs proposals popular: Yet another poll shows Americans like what’s contained in Obama’s jobs plan.

The newest Gallup survey shows 66 percent of people agree with raising taxes on those making more than $200,000 per year and families earning $250,000, while 70 percent favor closing corporate tax loopholes. Even 53 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents supported the latter.

Large majorities of all voters also approve of providing tax breaks to businesses who hired the unemployed, putting more money into hiring civil servants and investing in infrastructure projects. Each polled with at least 70 percent support.

Where things got a little closer was on extending unemployment benefits and reducing Social Security taxes. Those two earned 56 percent and 47 percent support, respectively.

People are also optimistic; 65 percent think the plan would help a little or a lot, while just 30 percent think it wouldn’t do anything.

Hokestra moves the goalposts: In Afternoon Fix yesterday, we noted that former congressman Pete Hoekstra’s (R) campaign set a goal of raising between $400,000 and $500,000 for the third quarter in the Michigan Senate race in a new memo.

As Democrats point out, that’s actually less than his previous goal.

In a fundraising e-mail from three weeks ago, Hoekstra wrote that “I need to raise at least $500,000 before September 30th to meet the expectations of the national party and earn their confidence that Michigan Republicans are doing what it takes to win this critical election.”

Candidates don’t generally set public fundraising goals they can’t reach, so if Hoekstra comes in south of $500,000, it could be embarrassing to him.

Democrats were quick to pounce.

“In a shameless attempt to lower expectations, Hoekstra’s team is putting out artificially low numbers and relying on talking points that are just flat out wrong,” said Shripal Shah, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Hoekstra adviser Charlie Spies assured that half a million dollars remains the goal: “Pete and the campaign have been consistent that $500K is the goal for the first fundraising report.”

Fixbits:

$44 million was spent on the state Senate recall elections in Wisconsin this summer.

Despite an uneven performance in the last debate, Rick Perry isn’t switching things up in his preparation for Thursday’s debate.

Perry releases his stock holdings.

An activist rabbi has funded much of Perry’s travel.

Some highlights of Levi Johnston’s book about the Palins, in case you care.

Rick Santorum said he’s disappointed with the financial support he’s gotten from the state he represented for two terms in the Senate, Pennsylvania.

Newt Gingrich says his new “Contract with America” is 10 times deeper than the 1994 version.

T. Boone Pickens calls on Perry to save the Big 12 Conference.

Good news for supporters of former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson: He will be invited to Thursday’s debate.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) offers this humdinger: “I think the president has become a pyromaniac in a field of straw men. I think what he wants to do is set up those of us on the other side of the aisle as some caricature and assign policies to us that we don’t have and then defeat those arguments.”

Vice President Biden raises big bucks for Obama.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) will run for the No. 5 spot in Senate GOP leadership, with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) stepping aside.

Businessman Matt Doheny (R) will try again versus Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y), but much depends on how the upstate district turns out in redistricting.

Must-reads:

College prank: Why Pennsylvania’s plan to reform the Electoral College is doomed” — David Weigel, Slate

Dodd-Frank Wears the Bull’s-Eye on G.O.P. Campaign Trail” — Edward Wyatt, New York Times

‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ ends in quiet, personal ways” — Ed O’Keefe, Washington Post

Would Al Gore Have Won in 2000 Without the Electoral College?” — Nate Silver, New York Times

How Christie could run” — Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post

Political shift in California trips Brown” — Adam Nagourney, New York Times

GOP Leaders Urge the Fed Not to Act” — Corey Boles, Wall Street Journal

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