Swing State Poll Shows Obama’s Narrow Options
"It means that the votes that President Obama needs to cobble together are going to be made up more of independents than they were last time. This time, it's going to be much, much closer..."
-- Lanae Erickson of moderate Democratic group Third Way talking to USA Today about the flight of registered Democrats from the party in battleground states.
In the dozen swing states where voters will decide the 2012 presidential election, a new Gallup/USA Today poll shows President Obama losing to the current Republican frontrunners by significant margins.
Obama trailed Mitt Romney by 5 points, 43 percent to 48 percent and trailed Newt Gingrich by 3 points, 45 percent to 48 percent, in the survey of these 12 battleground states
It’s a pretty big deal.
While Obama continues to tie or lead national polls, his performance in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin matters more. And there, things are not so good for the incumbent.
Part of the gap with the national numbers can be explained by the fractious, boom-and-bust Republican nominating process. While the overwhelming number of Democrats in deep-blue states already know who their nominee will be next year, Republicans are still squabbling amongst themselves in bright-red states like Georgia and Texas. That will change after there is a nominee and the national number for the GOP standard bearer will even out.
But the biggest problem for Obama is that he is underperforming his national number by so much in the swing states. Compared to his national number, his score falls by 4 points against Gingrich and 5 points against Romney. While Obama believes he can drive down the support for whoever the Republican nominee may be, it seems unlikely that he can get his own numbers up very much.
And this is where the president’s decision to not stay focused on the economy in his term is really a kick in the pants. In that dozen states, you have once prosperous places that have experienced major busts driven by a continually poor real estate market further retarded by extremely poor job growth (Colorado, Florida, Nevada and North Carolina) or states that were already struggling economically and have seen hopes for a brighter future dashed in the non-recovery recovery of the past three years (Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin).
Only Virginia is an economic success story, thanks in large part from federal outlays that support good incomes for residents in the northern part of the commonwealth and a large military presence across the Old Dominion. That, combined with the same business hospitality seen across the South, has made Virginia a rare swing-state success story. Most of the good economic news in the country has been in states down South or in the Midwest or Appalachia – thanks in part to an ongoing energy boom – where Obama cannot benefit.
Obama spent most of his first two years in office banging away at a health care law that proved to be an unpopular distraction for an economically anxious electorate. In his third year, Obama has been stymied by the historic Republican gains in the House. Despite his promise of a “hard pivot” to jobs, Obama has spent most of his time in 2011 in three pursuits: getting a jump on swing-state campaigning, raising money and engaging in the kind of grinding, small-bore budget battles that generally profit no one involved.
The overarching Obama miscalculation seems to have been that he needed to burn his political capital to get something big done with Democratic supermajorities in the Congress. The first miscalculation was that the legislation would be popular. It is not. The second miscalculation was on how many seats his party would lose in the midterms.
Had Obama lost the same number as Ronald Reagan did in 1982 (26) or even Bill Clinton did in 1994 (54), the Democratic plan might have worked better. That’s certainly the range Team Obama was thinking about as the president and his crew mostly stayed out of the fight as incumbent Democrats sent out distress signals.
But with a 63-seat shellacking, Obama was not able to pivot to anything except a battle over debt, deficits and spending. Even if Obama had found it in himself to moderate after midterms as Reagan and Clinton had done he was faced with the most Republican house since the 1920s.
Obama’s first bad bet was prematurely pursuing the health care law, which may yet be struck down by the Supreme Court. That resulted in the 2010 landslide, making it harder for Obama to reassume his 2008 centrist pose for his re-election campaign. Clinton paid a price for his attempt to overhaul healthcare, but Obama’s decision to try again at exactly the wrong political moment looks increasingly like one of the great blunders in American electoral history.
Obama won all 12 of the swing states in 2008, but how many of them will he win again?
He has structural advantages and history on his side in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania (though all three states skewed heavily Republican statewide in 2010). Polls and electoral trends suggest the president is unlikely to prevail in Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire and North Carolina.
That leaves Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio and Virginia as the swingingest swing states and Obama trailing in electoral votes 245 to 242 with 51 up for grabs. And there, team Obama will be counting on the most expensive, aggressive and negative re-election campaign ever waged.
And that’s where there’s real trouble in the poll for Obama in this poll.
Since 2008, swing state voters have become 9 percent less Democratic. When Obama won the swing states by 8 points, Democrats boasted an 11-point party identification edge. Now it’s down to 2-points. The huge advantage was the result of a huge registration drive among young and minority voters by the Obama campaign, the Democratic Party and labor unions. But it was also the natural result of four unhappy years for the GOP. The Iraq war and the Panic of 2008 left many moderates feeling frustrated with the party that had been in power for eight years.
Those folks, believing Obama was a sensible moderate, flocked to the blue banner. Having found that Obama was more of a doctrinaire liberal than they had assumed (health care, again) and now having heard the president engaging in an endless loop of partisan attacks, they have drifted away.
The president’s promise is that the base will be ready to roll by Election Day (hence all of the raw, red meat he has been serving up) combined with a high-tech, very expensive grassroots organization will compensate for the disaffection of the moderates.
But there, the poll has bad news for Obama too. Democratic enthusiasm, despite the president having devoted most of the fall to baiting his base with attacks on the red team and the plutocratic “1 Percent,” trails Republican enthusiasm in swing states 61 percent to 47 percent.
This sets up a scenario in which Obama spends more and more time trying to whip up the dwindling number of Democrats, further annoying moderate independents who are desperate for Washington to be less of a eye-popping failure. With Republicans shunning the most conservative contenders in their race, Obama finds himself with a narrower electoral map and narrower strategic options.