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Is Obama toast in 2012?

If Barack Obama is “toast,” as one now-infamous headline conjectured, why is the broadest-based forecast (Pollyvote) projecting the president will be reelected with 51.1 percent of the vote? That’s way too close for anyone’s comfort, and it presages an exceedingly close, hard-fought race that could go either way, but the plus side of 50 hardly qualifies as “toast.”

In fact, President Obama has a reasonable shot at reelection for reasons both structural and strategic. 

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Having professed my “fundamentalist” commitments here on many previous occasions, I don’t intend to abandon them now — this year, as in the past, the structural fundamentals will do more to determine the outcome than the day-to-day campaign back-and-forth, so start with the fundamentals — but I won’t be able to go through both here, so consider this Part 1.

Longevity — Americans are reluctant to throw a party out of the White House before affording it a reasonable chance to complete its work — thus the overwhelming tendency to give parties at least two terms. As Professor Alan Abramowitz has noted, in the past hundred years, voters have only once denied a president a second party term (Jimmy Carter in 1980). (Someone will quickly object, referencing George Bush the father, but he was in fact defeated while seeking a fourth GOP party term — two of Reagan’s and one of his own.) The fact that Obama is seeking just a second party term gives him an important structural advantage.

The Economy — Economic performance is a central structural fundamental, but the appropriate measurement of the abstraction we call the economy is very much in doubt. Myriad economic indicators, usually but not always correlated, are potential nominees for the most important—unemployment, GDP growth, consumer confidence, the stock market — and most have been cited by someone to argue the magnitude of Obama’s electoral predicament. However, not all economic indicators are created equal. Careful statistical analyses by several scholars reveal there is a real winner — one economic indicator more closely associated with electoral outcomes than any other: change in per capita real disposable income. It’s not an indicator voters see flashing on their TV screens each day, nor is it plastered on newspaper headlines; rather, it is an indicator voters feel every time they pull up to the gas pump or write a mortgage check. When Carter became the only president in a century to be denied a second party term, disposable income declined by about 1 percent. Indeed, that was the only presidential election year since Hoover’s in 1932 in which income growth was negative. This same indicator declined even sharply in the third quarter of 2011, but what of 2012? Current forecasts project growth over 1 percent, hardly stupendous, but consistent with Obama being reelected — about where Truman was when he defeated Dewey.

Demography — Demography is no longer destiny, but it plays a vital role in determining electoral fortunes. In short, African-Americans and Latinos, base Democratic constituencies, are a growing share of the electorate, while whites are declining. In 2000, blacks and Hispanics constituted about 16 percent of the electorate, rising to 22 percent in 2008 — and it could be higher in 2012. Jews are a smaller but extremely loyal demographic as well. If the president repeats his performance among African-Americans and does reasonably well, by historical standards, among Latinos and Jews, he can win with less than 40 percent of the white vote. How difficult is that to achieve? While Democrats were getting creamed in House elections across the country last cycle, we exceeded what the president requires, as did John Kerry in 2004. Hard, but hardly impossible.

More structure and strategy to come.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.

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