An African-American man with a foreign-sounding name and just two years of national political experience required plenty of enthusiasm behind his candidacy to be elected president in 2008. Now, that same man has suffered a marked loss of enthusiasm from those who supported him—and this is among the critical, yet manageable, problems Barack Obama faces heading into 2012.
Yes, the state of the economy and the quality of the Republican nominee will be the most important determinants of Obama’s electoral fate, but he can have limited impact on the first and none on the second. However, it is well within Obama’s power to motivate his voters to once again give money, knock on doors, send e-mails, and make calls in support of his re-election.
We saw the power of a fired-up party base in the 2010 midterms, and there is every reason to believe that conservative voters will be even more motivated to kick out Obama. While higher turnout in a presidential election may somewhat marginalize the votes of Tea Party conservatives, these folks will continue to be heard and exert an influence greater than their actual numbers.
The death of Osama bin Laden as the result of a White House–engineered military mission has certainly improved Obama’s standing with independents and makes it much harder for his opponents to portray him as weak or un-American. But taking out bin Laden may have a fleeting impact and does not negate the necessity for Obama to fire up his party base.
Our mid-April IBOPE Zogby interactive poll of 1,085 voters who backed Obama in 2008 found a noticeable enthusiasm deficit. Among the numbers that Obama must improve are the following:
• 17 percent said they are not at all likely (13 percent) or not very likely (4 percent) to vote for Obama again.
• 48 percent said they were less enthusiastic about his 2012 candidacy than they were in
• One-fourth of those who said they volunteered for or donated to his 2008 campaign don’t anticipate doing so again.
• By 57 percent to 28 percent, they said that “fear about the policies and actions that might take place if a Republican is elected” will be a stronger motivator to vote for Obama than will be “happiness with the job he has done as president.”
In looking at demographic groups large enough in our sample to draw reliable conclusions, our poll shows these opinions are not isolated to particular subsets of 2008 Obama voters. There are no gender differences. Age is not a significant variable, but younger voters are more likely to be less enthusiastic about voting for Obama again. Liberal Obama voters are more committed than moderates to voting for him again, but 46 percent are less enthusiastic this time around. And, the margins by which various groups say fear of a GOP president is stronger motivation than Obama’s record are consistent across subsets.
The fear of a Republican president is both a curse and blessing for Obama. Having people vote for you and not against your opponent is necessary for an incumbent, especially Obama. He may have broken a historic racial and cultural barrier in 2008 and seems to have an adequate store of goodwill with most Americans, but those who strongly disliked him in 2008 feel the same way now. A race where significant numbers of voters perceive a choice between the lesser of two evils should favor the candidate with the more motivated base.
But, as we know, polls consistently show Obama beating all of the most frequently mentioned Republican contenders. Primaries always push candidates to the ideological edges of their party, and this GOP race could be headed right off the cliff, intensifying the fear factor and helping Obama to turn out Democrats and to win moderates again. It also allows Obama to look much better to base voters. His April speech defending Medicare and Medicaid against Republican proposals, for example, brought elation to the liberal commentariat.
With his opponents so far to the right, Obama should be able to appeal to liberals without coming off as extreme to independents. But this can’t be taken for granted. If he wants to stay in the White House, Obama must again become Mr. Enthusiasm.
John Zogby is chairman of the board and chief insights officer of IBOPE Zogby International.