A Democratic president’s party loses control of Congress. The president moves to the right, handily wins re-election two years later and lives happily ever after—well, not quite.
The president is Bill Clinton, and the obvious potential analogy is to Barack Obama after the midterm elections. First indications from Obama after his party’s loss of the House are that he will try to follow the Clinton playbook. But will it work as well now when the economy is much worse and the electorate far more polarized? While Obama’s handling of the economy and other issues were certainly major factors in the Democrats’ “shellacking,” midterm losses are not a reliable predictor of whether a president will be re-elected. A significant number of the voters who put Obama over the top in 2008 did not vote in the midterms. The 2010 election raises doubts about Obama’s ability to win in 2012, but it is hardly a definitive verdict. Neither are horserace polls done two years out, including our November 2010 Zogby Interactive that showed Obama a few points behind Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Jeb Bush and only two points up on Sarah Palin.
In addition to the state of the nation two years from now, there are many variables with the potential to alter the race. The emergence of the Tea Party may lead to a confrontation with the Republican establishment, and there are already rumblings of an “anybody but Palin” movement among major GOP donors. There could even be a third-party candidate who might appeal to independents.
We can continue to measure opinion about Obama, especially through his job approval rating, which in our polling started out above 50%, but dropped below that in August 2009 and has since hovered in the mid-to-low 40s. That is the same range where Ronald Reagan and Clinton stood during the analogous periods in their first terms, but well below the low 60s enjoyed by each President Bush, both of whom benefitted from national unity, one after 9/11 and the other in the run-up to the Gulf War.
For Obama, when we do see overall shifts of a few points from week to week, loss of approval from Democrats is always a major reason for any drop. When Obama’s approval hit its low point of 39% in our interactive polling on November 22, his rating fell six points among Democrats compared with the previous week, from 78% to 72%. His overall approval bounced back to 42% nine days later, with his support among Democrats rebounding to 78%. On September 20, when Obama’s approval was at 49%, he received approval from 87% of Democrats.
There has also been movement among independents when Obama’s approval rating moves up or down. On September 20, 48% of unaffiliated voters gave Obama their approval; and when his overall approval hit bottom at 39%, his approval among independents was also 39%. We consistently find Republican voter approval for Obama in the single digits, ranging from 6% to 8%.
Obama’s re-election strategy seems to be a hope and expectation that the economy will improve in ways that will help him win back swing voters. Team Obama is also counting on over-reach by Republicans toward their most conservative elements, and a resulting backlash among independents. Compromising with Republicans may provide win-win opportunities that give Obama either legislative victories or the appearance of being reasonable in the face of GOP intransigence.
What Obama does not seem to be doing, at least in the eyes of some Democratic voters, is appealing to the party base and the first-time voters who were so critical in 2008. That is why I see Obama’s approval among Democrats as so important.
Obama’s approval among Democrats is very close to that of Clinton after his first two years, but his approval among independents is a bit lower than Clinton’s was. In 1996, Clinton benefitted from having Perot on the ballot and won 13% of Republican voters, an unlikely total for Obama to reach.
It will be very difficult for Obama to win reelection without maximizing enthusiastic support from liberals and turnout among young and minority voters. That is why what worked so well for Clinton in 1996 will be more difficult for Obama to pull off in 2012.
John Zogby is president and CEO of the polling firm Zogby International. You can post comments on political topics in the Zogby Forums at Zogby.com.