Conservative shoulders slumped this week as post-Democratic Convention polls showed President Obama bouncing to a 10-point lead in bailed-out Michigan and 6 percent in a national Gallup poll. Predictable gnashing of teeth followed as Right pundits blamed GOP nominee Mitt Romney for variously talking too much (about the Libyan embassy disaster) or too little (about his pro-growth economic plan).
But the truth is, challengers rarely beat incumbents (especially media-assisted Democratic incumbents).
Indeed, as the convention buzz dies away and this campaign returns to the neck-and-neck polling of recent months, what is remarkable – and of hope to Romney – is that this election is close at all. Republicans like to talk about the similarities of Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, and Reagan’s “comeback” 1980 election – because 1980 is the odd post-WW2 election where the challenger fell behind (if only briefly) then came back to win.
The better comparison of Obama to 1980 is how Ronald Reagan did in his re-election campaign of 1984 - after he had four years to right an economy that was as bad (if not worse) than the economy Obama inherited. The Reagan-Mondale campaign was never close, with Reagan leading throughout (Mondale’s convention bounce drew him even but otherwise he was never closer than 9 points) and winning going away on election day, 59-41.
Practicing fundamental, deregulatory market economics, Reagan rode a strong recovery following a deep recession. By contrast, Obama’s anti-business, European Socialist policies have been so disastrous (economic growth is just a quarter of that under Reagan) that he is actually in danger of losing re-election. This election shouldn’t be a game – but Romney has shadowed Obama throughout.
In this sense, the election is more like Dubya’s re-election in 2004 over Kerry (and a very partisan, anti-war media) – a tight race throughout fought over one big issue (Iraq in 2004, today it’s the economy).
The power of incumbency is no different in Michigan.
Where conservatives like myself like to point to the similarities of Romney and Governor Snyder – and the vast improvement this state has seen under an experienced business leader versus the incompetence of Obama-twin Granholm – the fact is that Snyder would likely have met the same fate as businessman candidate Dick DeVos against incumbent Granholm if One Tough Nerd had challenged her in 2006.
Voters have a stake in incumbents, having elected them once. They want to see their investment through. They are leery of changing boats (again). Thus, Obama’s opponents will be surprised to find that voters in Michigan’s EPIC poll parrot Obama’s claims that the economy is Bush’s fault – FOUR years after Dubya left office and THREE years after the recovery began. Advantage incumbent.
The New York Times’ Nate Silver is an Obamabot - but he does an effective job in crunching the numbers and indicating why Obama is no Jimmy Carter. Indeed, contrary to hopeful GOP underdog stories, Reagan consistently led Carter in the 1980 campaign thanks to an economy that was in worse shape than Obama’s pathetic recovery.
But in Silver’s numbers, GOPers will find hope.
The Obama recovery is turning south fast (which Silver’s May numbers did not predict)- including today’s negative industrial growth numbers (mirroring those of Carter even as they come much later in the campaign) and awful wage numbers showing Carter-esque losses of $4000 per household.
These are the kind of figures – combined with fresh doubts about Obama’s handling of foreign policy – that could turn independents against Obama in that rarest of electoral feats: An incumbent defeat.