I have argued before if the economy doesn’t improve significantly before the 2012 election, Barack Obama will be the easiest incumbent to defeat since Jimmy Carter. But even if that happens, it probably won’t look like it until the last days of the campaign. I say that in part based on the Carter-Reagan experience.
The 1980 election was held on November 2. But as late as October 23, Carter held a small lead over Reagan (39 percent v. 38 percent, with 9 percent voicing support for John Anderson, who ran as an independent.). And that gap was essentially static since Labor Day. But on election day, Carter pollster Patrick Caddell informed the president his latest polls revealed a massive shift toward Reagan in the previous 48 hours. It was all coming apart for Carter, Caddell concluded. And by the time the election was over, Reagan had carried 44 of the 50 states and won 489 electoral votes v. 49 for Carter.
“It was truly a landslide and virtually none of us in the media, the political industry or the polling fraternity had foreseen its dimensions,” according to “The Pursuit of the Presidency 1980,” written by several Washington Post reporters. “But the elements for the upheaval had long been present.”
I’m not prepared to predict a Carter-like defeat for President Obama, since it depends on several unknown factors, from who the GOP nominee will be to the state of the economy and the country. But I am prepared to say right now the elements for a 2012 upheaval are in place, much as they were prior to the Reagan landslide and as they were prior to the 2010 epic repudiation of Obama and Democrats. And unless the economy swings around soon and in a fairly substantial way, Mr. Obama will be terrifically vulnerable.
Unemployment is now 25 percent higher than when the president took office, the deficit is 35 percent higher, and gas prices have more than doubled (h/t: NBC’s David Gregory). According to Pollster.com, the president’s rating on the economy is underwater by more than 19 percentage points (56.9 percent versus 37.7 percent), the widest since he took the oath of office. Only one-in-three independent voters approve of the president’s handling of the economy. According to the most recent CNN/Opinion Research poll, by a margin of more than 30 points, voters disapprove of his handling of health care; and by a margin of more than 40 points, they disapprove of his handling of the federal deficit. And roughly half of the nation believes we’re either in a recession or a depression.
I recently spoke to someone who is fairly well connected to the Obama White House, and he indicated the president and his team hadn’t even contemplated the possibility of a re-election loss. They comfort themselves with the beliefs the GOP field is fatally flawed, demographics are working to their advantage, and Obama is a spectacularly good politician. Even states such as North Carolina and Georgia will be up for grabs, they are telling reporters.
Based on the objective conditions in the country right now, this self-confidence borders on being delusional. Of course, that wouldn’t be the first such incident for Obama and his team, and it won’t be the last.
No election is fated in advance, especially one 17 months away. But there are certain rules that tend to govern American political elections, and right now, Barack Obama is on the wrong end of almost all of them.