Economy, Demographics Work in Obama's Favor for 2012

Obama tax cuts - Joshua Roberts Reuters - banner.jpg
credit: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Next year will mark my 40th working in politics.

I got my start working on a U.S. Senate race as a senior in high school, and later that year I moved to Washington to attend Georgetown and begin a stint on Capitol Hill. As I reflect on nearly four decades of watching politics from high and low perches, I can say that the way I look at national politics and political trends has greatly evolved.

It has become increasingly clear that one has to take a multidisciplinary view of politics, where you watch not just what happens in campaigns and elections but also consider how economic events and demographic trends affect the political atmosphere.

If you look at what is happening today, it's abundantly clear that such things as the economy and demographics play enormous roles in politics. White House strategists must be very encouraged by the latest unemployment report.

Released last Friday, it indicated a net increase of 192,000 jobs and an 8.9 percent unemployment rate, down from 9.8 percent in November. This kind of growth should be heartening to those who believe that the closer unemployment is to 8 percent rather than 9 percent, the greater President Obama's chances of being reelected.

The only really useful historical precedent for a jobless situation like the one we're in was during President Reagan's first term. The country was suffering from a 10.8 percent unemployment rate in November and December of 1982, two years before Reagan had to face the voters again.

By December 1983, unemployment had dropped to 8.3 percent and finally to 7.2 percent in November 1984, when he was reelected in a landslide, winning 49 states.

At its peak, Reagan's unemployment situation was worse than Obama's. But the economic resurgence that occurred after Reagan's first midterm election enabled him to win reelection by a historic margin. Nobody is talking about a 49-state win for Obama in 2012. But it would be plausible to assume that his chances at winning 270 electoral votes and with them reelection would be a lot better if unemployment were to drop within a point of where it was when Reagan scored a second term.

Exploding oil prices and the resulting pain at the gas pump, however, along with the rapidly rising cost of food and other commodities worldwide, have the potential to choke off this frustratingly sluggish recovery and the job growth that seems to finally be picking up.

The combination of civil war in Libya, political unrest throughout the oil-rich Middle East, and surging demand for oil in emerging and fast-growing economies, particularly China, is driving oil prices sky-high.

The price of Brent crude oil on Monday morning was $117 a barrel, up from about $75 a barrel in late August. One prominent economist told his Wall Street clients that morning that "If Brent goes to $130 and stays, we'll probably cut our GDP forecast from plus-3.5 percent to plus-2.5 percent. Gasoline futures last week surged plus-30 cents." High fuel costs are the equivalent of a huge tax increase, vacuuming money out of consumers' pockets, only without the benefit of cutting deficits.

As a practical matter, the difference between 3.5 percent and 2.5 percent growth in gross domestic product might likely be the difference between net job creation and no net job creation. In short, the economy was doing what the Obama White House needed it to do, at least in terms of unemployment. But now there is a very real threat to economic growth if the situation in the Middle East doesn't settle down soon.

On the demographic front, Republican pollster Bill McInturff makes an excellent argument in the PowerPoint presentation he has been using of late to illustrate the challenge facing the GOP. He notes that Republicans carried the white vote by 12 points in 2000, 17 points in 2004, and 12 points in 2008, but that white voters' share of the electorate has dropped from 81 percent in 2000 to 74 percent in 2008.

So, although Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had the same share of the white vote in 2008 as George W. Bush did in 2000, Bush lost the popular vote by only about half a percentage point, while McCain lost it by 7 points.

The rise in the minority population, particularly Hispanics, is effectively moving the goalpost farther away for Republicans. If their share of the minority vote doesn't improve pretty dramatically, they will need an impossibly high performance among white voters to win the White House, not to mention down-ballot offices.

My hunch is that next year, Republicans will nominate a candidate who will be neither politically radioactive nor the reincarnation of Reagan. The nominee will fall somewhere in between, which means that the state of the economy, demographic trends, money, and the effectiveness of campaigns will matter a lot.

Democrats can hope and pray that the GOP chooses former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or some other candidate who can't win a significant number of independent votes. But in the end, that probably won't happen. Republicans hoping for a charismatic candidate who can put together some grand coalition will likely be similarly disappointed.

The danger of staying too focused on campaign developments is that you miss the megafactors that drive the electorate and election results. Watch the forest; don't concentrate so much on individual trees.

This article appeared in the Tuesday, March 8, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily.

Drop-down thumbnail credit: Joshua Roberts/Reuters