Reports of the Republican Nominee's Doom Are Greatly Exaggerated

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In the last few weeks, the GOP has succumbed to despair about beating Obama. Here are seven reasons he's still vulnerable.

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Political journalists like to imagine ourselves as wise, discerning observers of the landscape. But we're just as susceptible to the allure of shiny objects as everyone else -- perhaps more so, since no one's paying closer attention to each and every poll and bit of news. That's one reason why coverage of the GOP race has been a stomach-churning roller coaster, vacillating between declarations that Mitt Romney is a genius (he didn't panic about Rick Perry and waited for him to burn out! He won Iowa after all! He destroyed Gingrich in Florida!) and a disaster (he's losing to Michele Bachmann! He didn't win Iowa after all! He bombed in South Carolina!).

Most recently, this tendency has manifested itself in a series of predictions of doom by Republican insiders. It started as a low murmur a couple weeks ago and is gradually reaching a crescendo as Super Tuesday looms on the horizon. New York magazine's John Heilemann summarized the growing consensus:

A loss is what the GOP's political class now expects. "Six months before this thing got going, every Republican I know was saying, 'We're gonna win, we're gonna beat Obama,' " says former Reagan strategist Ed Rollins. "Now even those who've endorsed Romney say, 'My God, what a fucking mess.' "

Democrats, meanwhile, are crowing.

Everyone should probably take a step back and calm down for a moment.

President Obama probably has the edge for re-election, but that's not news: incumbents always have an advantage, and the president's formidable fundraising and strategy teams would be the envy of any candidate. But the fundamental reasons why he is vulnerable haven't changed much from three, four, or five months ago, when Wall Street Journal columnists were confidently predicting he was headed for a one-term presidency. Here's why everyone should still be paying attention.

1. It's too early to heed the polls. Right now, Gallup shows Obama losing to Mitt Romney and beating Santorum. RealClearPolitics' poll average has him leading by four points. The closer we get to Election Day, the more credence we can give to head-to-head polls as indicators of how the vote might go. But we're not at that point yet: just look at polls from past election years. Most polls at this time in 2008 had Obama up, but his margin was small and John McCain led a few. In late February, Gallup found that the Republican led both Obama and Hillary Clinton (though not by much). What's more, McCain significantly rallied several months later, in September, only to fall behind again. In late February and early March of 2004, John Kerry looked like a winner against George W. Bush. Gallup's Feb. 19, 2004 poll of likely voters showed the Massachusetts senator with a double-digit lead. In 2000, Gallup polls showed Bush leading Al Gore by five to 10 points, but as we all know, Gore ended up winning the popular vote. Leaving aside 1996, where Clinton already had a wide margin on Dole, we could go on for some time.

2. Republicans Will Unite Behind Romney (or Whomever). Here's the sort of sentence you can find in articles on nearly every presidential poll, with the numbers fluctuating slightly: "Still, 52 percent ... say they are not satisfied with the candidates running and wish someone else would enter the race. And that level of dissatisfaction is up from the 45 percent who felt that way a few weeks ago." But that sentence actually comes from a March 3, 1992 New York Times story on the Democratic primary. Unfortunately for those Democrats, no white knight rode in (damn you, Mario Cuomo!) and they were stuck with lesser candidate Bill Clinton, who went on to be the most successful Democratic president since Truman. In a January 30 Pew poll, Republicans gave almost exactly the same responses: 52 percent were dissatisfied with their slate, up from 46 a few weeks earlier.

None of this is to say that the primary process hasn't been very bad for the Republican Party. It has. Nor is it providing the sort of improvement that the 2008 race did for Barack Obama, as party pollyannas would have you believe. In particular, Romney (assuming he holds on to front-runner status and wins the nomination) has a bad, and worsening, favorable/unfavorable ratio. But the party will coalesce behind him, or whoever gets the nomination, though it's hard to see who else that could be at this point. Returning to the Clinton comparison, the Arkansan's favorability was nearly as far underwater in April 1992 Gallup polling (34 favorable, 46 unfavorable) as Romney's is now, but he still won.

3. Romney Continues to Improve as a Campaigner. How inept has Romney been on the stump? So bad that there are articles devoted purely to his gaffes on a single subject, his wealth. But Romney has shown continued growth as a candidate, recovering from body blows in South Carolina and elsewhere. He recently acknowledged his own weaknesses, a sign that he's working to address them, and it's safe to assume his campaign won't let any debacles like the Ford Field fumble happen again. And though he's been drawn to the right during the primary, almost certainly to his detriment, he still has the moderate record to appeal to the center during a general election.

4. The Unemployment Rate Remains Extremely High... The economy is voters' foremost concern, and the most cited number on the topic is the unemployment rate. Yes, it's getting better -- having fallen to 8.3 percent, its lowest since the recession started, in January. Plus it's hard to draw a straight line between unemployment and reelection. But the fact remains that no president has won reelection with an unemployment rate above 7.2 percent since Franklin Roosevelt. Not only is that 1.1 percent lower than the current rate, but the Obama Administration's recent budget predicted unemployment rates would average 8.9 percent for the year -- though it now say that was too pessimistic a forecast.

5. ... And the Recovery Is Still Precarious. But maybe the unemployment rate is irrelevant. What if the nascent recovery runs out of steam? It's certainly possible, since a similar thing happened last year. The European economic mess could spread to the U.S. The nation might hit the debt ceiling before, rather than after, the election, creating a messy and politically damaging fight. Gas prices could torpedo economic growth.

6. Obama's Signature Policies Remain Very Unpopular. Though voters are still personally fond of the president, they really don't like what he's done in office. The auto bailout, which Obama boasted about Tuesday? Fifty-five percent of Americans oppose it. A plurality of Americans favor repealing the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, and it's even less popular in swing states. Even if there isn't much conversation about these measures now, they'll be staples of the GOP nominee's general-election campaign.

7. An October (or September, or August) Surprise. The Obama Administration is overdue for a major scandal (despite the best efforts of congressional Republicans, neither Fast and Furious nor Solyndra seems to have had a major impact on public opinion). Israel could decide to attack Iran, forcing the president into a Sophie's Choice of either entering a catastrophic war in the Middle East or else rebuking Israel in an election years. Who knows what else might happen?

None of these things adds up directly to an Obama loss. But one of them alone could reverse the president's momentum in polls to the benefit of a GOP challenger, and some combination of the above could very well send him off the rails. It's still a long road to November.

Image: Jason Reed / Reuters

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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