Fast forward to two thousand and twelve … (pt. 2 of 3)

November 19, 2008

So Obama’s going to be President.  Which means that 2012 will be in large part a referndum on him.  If he fucks up badly, the Republicans will probably be able to win if they find someone decent; if he’s solid, they don’t really stand a chance.  

Right now, Obama has a serious amount of political capital. He also has really fat congressional majorities–depending on the outcome of a few outstanding races, probably the largest since the second half of Carter’s term. And, because of the decline of the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, his working majority is probably a little stronger than Carter’s. George W. Bush was maybe in as strong a position from the fall of 2001 to the spring of 2003. Clinton was never this strong. George H. W. Bush and Reagan had some moments like this, but not as many in reality as in the Legend of the Conservative 80s. (I could write a whole post on that, come to think of it.)

So can he hold his coalition together? The bad news comes from the Gallup Organization, which has been doing presidential-approval polls since FDR was in the White House. Of the twelve presidents in that time, eleven (including GWB) have left office with a lower approval rating than they entered with. The good news is that approval ratings are a pretty bad predictor of reelection performance. Bush won in 2004 with approval below 50% in several polls; Ford lost in 1976 with approval over 50%; Nixon had lackluster approval most of his first term and took home more than 60% of the vote in 1972.

The fact is that Obama won by seven points; given the way younger and older voters broke broke, and the fact that individuals tend to vote fairly consistently over the course of their lives, we would expect him to go into 2012 with about an eight- or nine-point natural lead. So the question is: can anybody make inroads into his coalition? Well, what is his coalition? I think it might make sense to break this down by race and religion:

Blacks: Pretty much everyone.
White Christians: Pro-choice women, union members and some other poor to middle-class voters concerned primarily with their own economic interests, environmentalists, Iraq War opponents, the LGBT community.
Others: Those who aren’t passionately right-wing about at least one issue (including things like taxes).

The problem for the Republican Party was summed up pretty well by Howard Dean three years ago: “It’s pretty much a white Christian party.” Now, they have some opportunities to solidify their standing with that group. If the Iraq War ends–or, more likely, fades away–that neutralizes one winning issue for Obama. If Obama falls short of his goals on energy independence and reducing carbon emissions, that creates an opening for a Republican who sounds like he cares about the issue. And if most Americans feel like their own economic situation is getting worse, a Republican who sounds sort of sensible can make inroads there as well. But, really, the Republicans are still very much hemmed in by their commitment to the culture wars. If they want to make any sort of inroads with young voters–a group that’s disproportionately black and Hispanic and generally contemptuous toward homophobia–they need to find some middle ground on a wide range of issues.

Part 3 will consider whether the Republicans have anybody that fits the bill, and also whether there are openings for third-party candidates.

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