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.

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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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