View from Australia: The ghost of 2008

By Jonathan Bradley

Any Democrats feeling too glum about Barack Obama's re-election prospects — or any Republicans looking to ward off the jinx of overconfidence — might like to look at this tale from Sunday's New York Times:

As North Carolina Republicans tell it, the Obama for America volunteers stole in under cover of night and stayed, undetected — noticed belatedly only because of election results across the state.

“It was very scary,” said Chris Sinclair, a strategist for Billie Redmond, the Republican candidate for mayor in Raleigh. “You don’t know what’s going on until you wake up after Election Day and go, ‘Oh my gosh, what happened?’ ”

What happened was that candidates supported by Democrats trounced Republicans in the Raleigh and Charlotte mayoral races this fall, and even wrested control of the Wake County school board from Republicans associated with the Tea Party.

It was only after the damage was done that local party leaders learned of the hidden hand of thousands of Obama for America volunteers and staff members. Never publicizing their work, they went door-to-door across the state, successfully getting their voters out to the polls in a highly effective dry run for 2012.

Chris Cillizza ditches the horror move overtones, but tells a similar story:

Everyone knows that President Obama has a problem with his political base heading into 2012. Except that he doesn’t.

One of the most persistent story lines for the president has been that the liberal left has grown increasingly dissatisfied with his actions (or inaction) on some of its priorities — including single-payer health insurance, the extension of the George W. Bush tax cuts and whether to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But an examination of the polling data among key subgroups that constitute Obama’s base makes clear that he has as much support from them as any modern president seeking a second term.

One of the most striking aspects of Obama's victory in 2008 was its organisation, particularly its ability to motivate groups not traditionally inclined toward mass political participation. The story is oft-told and well known: Facing up against a highly efficient and well-organised Clinton machine, the unlikely Illinois insurgent had to turn to small donors and urge new voters to turn out to the polls. Analysts scoffed; this was the same trick Howard Dean failed to pull off, and the kinds of voters Obama was targeting — young college students, independents, African Americans, Hispanics — had a reputation for getting worked up during a campaign but staying home on election day.  When, over the course of the primary, and then the general, Obama revealed that he had turned this traditionally unreliable base into a slick fundraising, turnout lifting army, analysts swallowed their crow and declared the arrival of a new politics.

As the president's poll ratings fell, however, the media found a new story: Obama's base had tired of him. The young were as fickle as had always been expected, while independents and racial minorities were souring on the president in the face of high unemployment. The grinding compromise and deal-cutting that characterises governing had worn down the optimism that accompanied the 2008 campaign, and the president's supporters would stay home in 2012. Cillizza and the Times's reporting suggest this new conventional wisdom might not be true.

At the same time, the Republican base has none of the affection for its likely candidate that Democrats have for their president. Michael Walsh is deeply pessimistic:

Meanwhile, Say-Anything Mitt has no home port and is unlikely find one beyond the generic anti-Obama vote. Which, alas, will not be big enough or motivated enough to evict Cap’n Barry from the White House bridge as he madly steers the ship of state into the iceberg. Indeed, the campaign will begin and end with this photograph.

Sorry, but that’s the truth. Say what you will about Sarah Palin, but she would have brought a super-energized base of productive taxpaying citizens with her that might have competed favorably with the Obamabots. But she broke their hearts — and damaged herself — by teasing and then not running, leaving the GOP bereft of a candidate who could match BHO II’s charisma.

The question is, however: How much does all this matter?

Don't get me wrong. Turn-out is an important factor in any election, though less so in high profile races like presidential contests. A motivated base is also much more likely to give its time, dollars, and effort to getting its chosen candidate elected. Conservatives might have wanted the Republican to win in both 2004 and 2008, but they really wanted George W. Bush to win in 2004. The energy he motivated in suppporters that John McCain didn't might have made the difference in closely fought swing states like Ohio. And if every you doubted the importance of a campaign, look to 2000, when Karl Rove's tactical prowess almost certainly made the difference between President Al Gore and documentary film creator Al Gore.

Political scientists are divided on just how much campaigns matter though. Many think that though voters don't entirely judge the incumbent on economic fundamentals, laymen place far too much emphasis on the campaign. Even the campaign itself can be misinterpreted. Jonathan Bernstein, for instance, predicts that the apparent lack of enthusiasm conservatives have for Romney won't matter in the slightest:

The Republican nominee won’t be destroyed by a lack of enthusiasm within the GOP base. It doesn’t matter how Republicans feel about Mitt Romney now; once he (or someone else) is the nominee, they’ll be hit with months of stories featured in the news sources they trust about what a swell guy and great conservative Mitt Romney has always been.

But even if you think the professors are too attached to their models, their refusal to get caught up in campaign fever is a welcome corrective to political journalists. Reporters tend to think campaigns are crucial because they spend so much of their time covering them — just like political operatives, who think campaigns are crucial because that's how they get paid.

Obama's base might not have deserted him, and Republicans might not have warmed to Romney, but Republicans would do well not to get too downhearted about the Obama-controlled ghost-in-the-night that stalked through North Carolina. Organisation can only take a candidate so far, and a lot of Americans have a long time to practice their response to any campaigner who calls them up asking them to re-elect the president.

"He's had a chance," they might say. "I want to give the other guy a go."

28 November 2011