2012 will be about Obama

The greatest political deception of the month must be that PowerPoint presentation — the 10-slide deck that shows the president matched against various Republicans — that is being trundled around the country for showings to audiences of Democrat fat-cats. Naturally, I haven’t been invited to view it, but I am betting that the data shared with big donors does not show the “deserves reelection” percentage earned by the president. That would scare off the faint-hearted. So, instead, the deceivers show the head-to-head results of Obama versus Michele Bachmann. I can’t believe sophisticated contributors are falling for this.

Not only is this “data-based” sleight of hand misleading about the president’s empirical prospects — the larger strategic premise is flawed. Advisers to the president’s nascent reelection campaign keep talking about where they are today versus four years ago. Worse off, they acknowledge. But then they start criticizing the Republicans for not being where the Democrats were four years ago. It’s as if they think they (and even Republicans) are going to succeed by going back to the future.

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All this logic is terribly flawed. Here’s why. The contest four years ago was for an open seat. Open-seat races are about all comers and both parties. The 2012 election will be a reelection contest. It will focus narrowly on the incumbent. Has Barack Obama handled the presidency well enough to deserve reelection? Virtually all incumbents, and even a few challengers, appear to resent this one-sided nature of reelection contests. But resentment doesn’t alter the reality.

Incumbents, including Obama, react to this certainty by doubling down on opposition research. They figure they can “make it all about the challenger” with enough dirt to induce people to forget about the incumbent’s failures. Sure, if you have pictures of the challenger committing an ax murder, you might turn the tables, but the standard oppo file doesn’t hold enough garbage to transform a reelection campaign into a referendum on the challenger. Like it or not, Jim Messina and David Axelrod, this is going to be a referendum on your administration. Get used to it. Don’t take it personally, either, like some sort of martyr. All incumbents face this judgment. If Obama had only had the wisdom to get seasoned by a Senate reelection campaign before running for the White House, he would have had some experience with this truth.

The takeaway from this for Republicans presidential aspirants is not to get sucked into the Obama alternate-reality scenario. Don’t start too early. That only helps the Democrat snipers sighting their targets. Republicans also should drop delusions that this is about their own biographies, accomplishments and policies. They must keep the judgment focused on the incumbent. Sure, Republicans can do some touting of their pasts, but always highlighting how their own deeds compare and contrast with the failures of the incumbent. Keep the heat on. It’s how incumbents are toppled.

There’s an even more practical reason that Republicans cannot be goaded onto the playing field too early: money. To run a proper presidential campaign, even with a skeletal, pared-down organization, will cost at least $50,000 a day. I didn’t say a week. I said 50 grand every day, seven days a week. Multiply that goal times eight or nine candidates and you are chewing through more than $50 million just in the next six months. There’s simply not enough in the pockets of the Republican faithful to bankroll that kind of spending. Hold off.

The question about deserving reelection is not asked often enough by the public pollsters. The last time The Hill reported Obama’s results, in December, only 42 percent said he’s worth another term. That’s far more telling than Obama’s double-digit lead over Newt Gingrich or Sarah Palin in someone’s PowerPoint presentation.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.