No incumbent president since FDR has been re-elected with an unemployment rate above 8 percent. Despite that daunting precedent, an increasing number of political analysts and prominent Democratic Party figures are now bullish about President Obama’s re-election prospects. “Obama’s chances have definitely improved,” former Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean recently told me. “If Mitt Romney’s the Republican nominee, I would say it’s a one- or two-point win for Obama.”
Dean also likes his party’s chances at the Congressional level. “I’m predicting flat-out that if Obama wins, Democrats take back the House,” he says. Other analysts have recently raised that possibility, even though GOP domination of the redistricting process gives Republicans a major edge in 2012.
In the wake of last month’s surprisingly strong job numbers, Obama’s re-election prospects have steadily inched upward, from a low of 45 percent in October 2011 to 60 percent today, according to Intrade. Four new polls this month have shown Obama with a five- or six-point lead over Romney, who remains the likely GOP presidential nominee. A Pew poll released yesterday shows Obama up by eight on Romney, his largest lead to date. The president’s approval ratings have also returned to 50 percent for the first time in many moons. In a notable departure from 2010, Democrats now say they are more excited to vote than Republicans.
It’s too soon to know if this is a temporary blip or a more durable boost for the president on his road to re-election. Any number of things could go wrong for Obama—the unemployment rate could spike if the economy slows, Europe’s debt crisis could escalate or there could be a new foreign policy crisis with Iran. As it stands now, Americans by a 2-1 margin still say the United States is headed in the wrong direction (though that’s a big improvement from last summer, when as few as 14 percent of Americans were optimistic about the country’s prospects). The economy is also performing worse in a number of key swing states.
Nate Silver projects that the economy needs to create roughly 150,000 jobs a month for Obama to feel comfortable about his re-election. A recent survey of economists by the Philadelphia Fed forecast an average of 144,000 new jobs per month this year, with the unemployment rate at 8.1 percent by the time of the election. That should make Obama a slight favorite heading into the fall. “The rising tide of consumer optimism directly parallels the upward trend in Obama’s overall job approval rating,” writes Huffington Post polling analyst Mark Blumenthal.
Looking at the Electoral College map, Dean predicts that Obama will win 296 electoral votes to Romney’s 242. He believes that the president will hold the crucial swing states of Florida, Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, and “could have a shot in Arizona because of the Latino vote.” Dean cautions that Obama “could lose Pennsylvania and Michigan and will probably lose North Carolina,” where Democrats are holding their convention this fall, along with Indiana. Still, all the president needs is 270, and currently has a number of different pathways to victory.
Dean believes the Hispanic vote will give Obama and Democrats a major advantage in crucial swing states out west. “The Latino vote will break for Obama big time,” he predicts. Obama beat John McCain among Hispanic voters by 36 points in 2008, 67-31 percent. A Pew Hispanic Center poll at the end of the year showed Obama beating Romney by 45 points among Hispanic voters, 68-23 percent.
Romney’s hardline immigration rhetoric and policy positions could be one of a number of major vulnerabilities in a general election. “Republicans are going to look better when they have a nominee,” Dean says. “But boy, they’re in big trouble now. This has been a disastrous primary season for them. Too many debates have compelled Romney to say some things that are going to be landmines for him in general election if he’s the nominee.”
In the past Dean has been critical of the Obama administration, particularly its handling of the healthcare bill. (He also famously clashed with former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.) But after a rocky last year, he believes the president is now on surer footing. “I think he’s doing great,” Dean says. “He’s been hitting on all cylinders. It started with the jobs speech and he hasn’t looked back. He’s a terrific campaigner and he’s in full campaign mode.”
Obama’s unveiling of a jobs bill last September shifted the focus of his administration away from austerity and toward public investment. The Occupy Wall Street movement subsequently drew the nation’s attention to the long-ignored problem of income inequality, creating the first real progressive populist moment of the economic crisis.
The debate over the economy is now unfolding on turf far more favorable to Democrats than Republicans. “If Obama is re-elected, he will owe an enormous debt to Occupy Wall Street, which he will never acknowledge,” Dean says. “Their core message is ‘the emperor has no clothes. It is the 99 percent versus the 1 percent.’ Americans have felt like that for awhile, but they couldn’t say it or talk to each other about it before OWS.”
Dean says he understands that many supporters of OWS are frustrated with the Democratic Party and Obama administration, which they view as captive to the moneyed interests of the 1 percent. But he says that boycotting the election or voting for someone other than Obama would only make things worse.
“I believe we need a progressive party in this country,” Dean says. “But for progressives to not vote for Obama is crazy. Citizens United would have never been put into law and America would never have been sold to the highest bidder had Al Gore won in 2000. Obama, if he wins, is going to appoint maybe one or two more Supreme Court justices. That could make all the difference. For that reason alone, you can’t say there’s no difference between the parties. Politicians in Washington may not be able to help you much, but they sure can hurt you.”
Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, now out in paperback with a new afterword.