The latest Gallup polls confirm that, in spite of President Obama’s improved approval rating, the 2012 election will most likely be very close and depend on the strengths and vulnerabilities of the Republican candidate and the quality of the two campaigns.
One factor driving a likely close race is polarization. It is exceedingly difficult for a president to win any significant opposing party supporters. As the two parties have become more ideologically homogenous in the modern, post-Reagan era, polarization has increased. Obama begins with little approval from Republicans, but has support from four-fifths of Democrats. G.W. Bush had some residual post 9/11 Democratic support as he began his campaign in 2003 (it was also before he launched war in Iraq), but he finished office with a record high approval gap.
While Republican candidates begin early jockeying for position, the Democrats are engaged in an internal debate between Chicago and D.C. staffs and consultants. Did the 2010 midterm show that the re-election will be a closely fought battle in swing states with large numbers of independent voters and weak partisans or is the fight through the heartland based on turn out among traditional Democratic core constituents?
David Axelrod cites the former as his model and labels it the Colorado Plan. The Michael Bennet two-point senate win last November is his vision of the most likely 2012 scenario. Although many of the party’s old hands and especially its traditional labor, big city and coastal constituencies agree that the battle will be close, especially if a sluggish economy doesn’t motivate the party base, they disagree victory is in weak partisan swing states. They feel a full partisan battle aimed at the heartland – Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – is the best strategy. They believe states that performed especially poorly for Democrats in the midterm must be turned around.
The latest re-election figures offer support for each view. As of February 5, 2011, Obama was in a dead heat with a generic Republican (45% to 45%).
As the campaign begins, there is very little gender gap, an area Democrats will change if they use the Colorado model.
Democrats continue to lose the White vote and carry substantial minorities. They also have a small advantage with Americans under 35 years old. It is not clear young voters and minorities will turn out above average in 2012 to provide the extra need to balance out older voters and Anglos.
Axelrod would point to the 41 percent to 41 percent tie between Obama and a generic Republican among independent voters to show that the race is in the middle, not the partisan edges. Labor and liberals would argue more Democrats, young and minorities are the key. Keep the message on the left.
Although the two strategies are not mutually exclusive, the resolution of the debate will direct resources, and it will greatly affect Obama’s overall positioning, his message selection, tone and legislative strategy starting now.
See Gallup polls:
Nameless Republican Ties Obama in 2012 Election Preferences
Obama’s Approval Ratings More Polarized in Year 2 Than Year 1