It looks like Barack Obama has gained some ground in his fight for re-election. In the latest survey conducted by Reuters/Ipsos, Barack Obama leads Mitt Romney 49% to 42%. In another poll conducted by NBC News/Wall Street Journal, Obama is ahead of Romney with 49% to 43%. And even in the last survey of the conservative television station FOX News, the incumbent president leads his republican challenger by 4% (45% to 41%). But make no mistake. This race will go down the wire.
As I wrote in my recent book, an election involving an incumbent president or prime minister is foremost a referendum about the incumbent (you can get more information about my book and download a free sample chapter at: www.perroncampaigns.com/book.php). Therefore, one should not pay too much attention to match-up questions in surveys. This is even more the case if these surveys are taken months before the election. What matters much more are the underlying dynamics shaping the election: how many percent of the electorate approve of the job the president is doing? How many percent of respondents think that the country is moving into the right direction? If one looks at these poll results, everything points towards a very close election.
Looking back, there were presidents such as Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan who had approval ratings of over 60% and went on to win their re-elections easily. On the other hand, there were presidents such as Jimmy Carter or George H. W. Bush, whose job approval ratings were somewhere in the low 30% and who went on to lose their respective re-election bids. In 2004, when George W. Bush was running for re-election, his approval rating was in between these two, just below 50%. What followed was the closest election in the history of the USA. Ironically, President Barack Obama now faces a very similar situation as George W. Bush in 2004. According to the website realclearpolitics, the average of recent polls shows that 47.9% of the electorate approves of the job Obama is doing, while 47.4% disapproves.
Dick Morris, a famous political pollster, recently pointed out an interesting thing: undecided voters almost always break against the incumbent candidate. In concrete, Morris compared the performance of eight incumbent presidents running for re-election in the last Gallup tracking poll with the actual election results. Six out of the eight incumbent presidents running for re-election lost points between the last survey and the actual election. Only one incumbent president performed better on Election Day, namely George W. Bush in 2004.
Looking at the playbook of George W. Bush means to run a very aggressive campaign. The purpose of such a strategy is to define, put on the defense and destroy the challenger before he has time to define himself. In other political systems and cultures, attacking has to be done in a much more implicit tone. Yet, many other vulnerable incumbents have survived using the same strategy: no matter how bad things are, no matter how high unemployment and the deficit are, things will only get worse if the challenger takes over. By using this strategy, John Mayor won one more election for the British Tories in 1992, Helmut Kohl got re-elected in Germany in 1994 and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo won a second term as President of the Philippines in 2004. I also think that Nicholas Sarkozy would have fared better, had he gone on the offense much earlier instead of underestimating his Socialist opponent. The past weeks seem to indicate that Barack Obama and the Democratic Party are not shy to follow the same strategy as George W. Bush in 2004.