Despite Obama's Worst Month, He Can Still Win

The president will want to forget August, but he's still likely to get re-elected.

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Two Big Questions

Presidential campaigns don't happen in a vacuum. So in addition to historical trends and a "blameless economy," the reason Obama will get re-elected is the state of the Republican candidate field. No, this is not a snarky, liberal rant about how they're all so flawed, but it's no coincidence that many of the "stronger" candidates opted to "skip" this campaign because they thought Obama was going to be hard to beat.

Objectively speaking, the presumptive Republican nominees, Mitt Romney or Rick Perry, are going to have trouble with the two big questions of any election. In my new book Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell I point out that presidential campaigns boil down to two key questions: 1) Do you think the incumbent has done a good job? and 2) Do you think the challenger can do the job better?

Here's the tricky part: Voters spend the entire campaign year trying to figure out the answer to question No. 1. The incumbent says he's done a good job, the challenger says he hasn't. If voters say yes to question No. 1, they vote to re-elect and that's the end of it. If they decide no, then the challenger has a very small window, such as that between Labor Day and Election Day, to convince the public that he or she can do the job "better" than the incumbent. This an extremely hard task, which is why we've only had two presidents in the last 50 years fail in their attempt to get re-elected. Consider the 2004 election: George W. Bush was the only president to get re-elected with an approval rating of less than 50 percent. It was clear the public did not think he was doing a good job but John Kerry could not convince anyone that he could do it better.

Rick or Mitt is going to have to convince the public he is not as crazy as the Tea Partiers in Congress; that he is not as crazy as unpopular Republican governors in swing states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida; and then that he can fix an economic situation that seems intractable. Even if the public is lukewarm on Obama's economic moves, this does not translate into believing that the GOP candidate can and will do better.

What Does Victory Look Like?

In August of last year, Americans cared about Elena Kagan getting on the Supreme Court, Obama ending combat operations in Iraq and the BP oil spill. Seems like ancient history now. The campaign environment for the 2012 elections will look drastically different than America looks today. President Obama has licked his wounds and is already starting his 2012 push with his bus tour and impending jobs package. The president remains popular personally despite low performance numbers, he looks good historically, he's got a better chance of taking credit for a slightly improving economy than taking full blame for a failed one and his opposition may be hamstrung by their own party's poor reputation.

All of this boils down to Barack Obama's chances in 2012 being a lot better than you think. 

Jason Johnson is the author of the book Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell from Westview Press/Perseus books and a professor of political science at Hiram College.

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