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.