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… and the heat is on.

An article by Nate Silver published in the New York Times this weekend and entitled ‘Is Obama Toast?’ claims Barack Obama’s chances for reelection in 2012 are slim. Three indicators are used to underpin this argument, namely current approval ratings, predicted GDP growth and the ideological positioning of the Republican candidate.

Silver’s line of reasoning is entangled in smart time-series statistics for effect, but it is pretty simple and goes as follows:

• Since 1944 (‘when approval ratings first became reliable’), all five incumbent presidential candidates with approval ratings below 49% one year prior to the election lost. Obama’s current approval ratings hover around 43%.

• The state of the economy impacts on electoral performance as the common sense has it since Clinton’s famous credo ‘it’s the economy stupid.’ Things are not looking brilliant on this front for Obama: the financial crisis persists and the majority of Americans perceive the economy as in a state of recession.

• Despite the polarized debate in Congress but also on the streets, with the Tea Party setting the agenda, the majority of Americans is yearning for moderation (including, according to the Economist, for a mixed bag of spending cuts and tax rises) and will ‘naturally’ veer towards the more moderate candidate.

It follows, or so Silver, that if the economy were to continue to stagnate, and the Republican candidate is a moderate like Mitt Romney, Obama is in serious trouble.

That Obama is in trouble is no news, it never was—so, let us look at the evidence.

Problem # 1: The time-series data Silver is referring to goes back to 1944 and covers a total of 17 presidential elections. That is a pretty small sample for drawing generalizations, especially when using a sulky indicator like approval ratings in conjunction with electoral performance.

Problem # 2: Since the economy has been pretty bad for some time now, it is not clear how it will impact on voters’ decisions. Silver himself admits it might be enough, so-to-speak, if the voters perceive an upward trend, however small that might be—but he leaves that out of his scenarios.

Problem # 3: Silver’s analysis fails to consider a key variable, namely electoral turnout. The issue, at present, is not what the majority of Americans wants, but rather how many will turn out and vote.

This last point is one of the conclusions of Larry Sabato’s edited book Pendulum Swing published earlier this year (see also book’s review in NYRB by Andrew Hacker). A key argument of this book is that the electorate for the 2010 mid-term elections was different from that for the 2008 presidential elections—and that this largely explains the failure of Democrats to keep control of Congress. More specifically, the younger cohorts that carried Obama to victory in 2008 stayed at home in 2010. As a result, the turnout for the mid-term elections was some twenty points below that for the presidential elections. Two other interesting findings: first, the reason younger people stayed at home had less to do with disaffection and more with not being used to regular voting; second, mobilization was stronger among conservatives than among liberals.

This also pins down the essence of the Republican strategy for the 2012 elections. The Tea Party is not attractive for the mainstream Republican voters—definitely not. But their mobilization will be used strategically to rally the mainstream around a more moderate candidate like Romney. (Remember: Tea Party opponents are as numerous among Republicans as among independents and Democrats). Once Romney wins the primaries, Republican voters—mainstream and extremist—will unify against their common enemy Barack Obama and his pro-government agenda.

Could it work? It might, but it might not. Its success will largely depend on Democrats’ ability to mobilize their own sympathizers as opposed to arguing against their opponents. That won’t be easy considering the present mistrust of politics which, in its turn, is feeding preferences for single-issue movements. But it is possible. Keeping the larger picture into focus and addressing own constituencies will be vital.

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