It is, by now, an article of faith for most folks in the punditocracy that a Democratic President must triangulate to earn re-election. First brought to the public conversation in President Clinton's ultimately successful 1996 re-election bid, the concept is to position oneself as the bridge between two intractable parties/ideologies. Many a column inch has been devoted to alternately insisting that Barack Obama follow the same trail, or praising him when it appears that he is doing precisely that.
Consider this point of praise back in December for the tax cut deal:
Sixteen years ago, Mr. Clinton was in the same situation Mr. Obama finds himself in today: the Democratic majority in Congress swept out of power, and the need to rethink how policy is formed. For Clinton, the answer was “triangulation,” the practice of meeting Republicans part-way, often to the chagrin of Democrats.
Obama already appears to be getting the hang of it. This week’s crackup between Obama and his liberal base over a tax-cut deal he reached with the Republicans seemed poised to threaten Obama’s support among the progressive grassroots, whose energy and donations he will need to win reelection. But just as easily, it opens him up to a second look from independents and moderates who abandoned the Democrats in the midterms and whose support he needs if he wants a second term.
With rare exceptions, it is extraordinarily difficult to find an election analyst make the case that for President Obama to get re-elected, he needs to tack left, at least some of the time.
You are about to read a rare exception. Perhaps not stunning, coming from a site that calls the progressive blogosphere home. Nevertheless, there is a legitimate, data-driven case that triangulation and tacking to the "center" (or, heaven forbid, the "center-right") will not yield President Obama the electoral dividends he seeks.
To make the case, I will use several sets of data. To save us from incessant linkage down the line, let's lay out the sources up front. They are:
- 2010 Exit Polls, both nationally and from a total of 15 states.
- 2009 Exit polling from New Jersey and Virginia
- 2008 Exit Polls, both nationally and from a total of 20 states.
- 2006 Exit Polls, national House poll only.
- A trio of late-cycle Independent polls from 2010: a SUSA poll from Georgia, a PPP poll from Minnesota, and a PPP poll from North Carolina. These three polls were chosen for two simple reasons: these were states that did not have exit polling on Election Day, and the poll toplines closely reflected the final result.
Based on the above data sources, there is a reasonable case to be made that a base strategy may well prove to be as sound an electoral strategy as triangulation. This argument is based upon four primary points of emphasis.
1. WHO votes is every bit as important as HOW they vote
As disastrous as the 2010 election cycle was for Democrats, we tend to forget that the Democrats not only carried 90% of the vote among liberals last year, they also carried 55% of the vote among moderates. The disaster for Democrats came among conservatives.
It wasn't necessarily their vote total, though the mere 13% of conservatives who voted for Democrats was substantially less than the 20% that voted for Dems in 2006, or voted for President Obama in 2008. It was the proportion of the electorate represented by conservatives.
Consider than in 2008, when President Obama scored his historic victory, the ideological makeup of the electorate was as follows: 22% liberal, 44% moderate, and 34% conservative. By 2010, the electorate looked dramatically different: 20% liberal, 38% moderate, and 42% conservative.
To put it another way, in two years the liberal/conservative gap went from Cons +12 to Cons +22. And therein lies the landslide.
The gap was even wider in some key battleground states that went away from the Democrats. Pennsylvania went from a 4-point conservative edge to a 16-point edge. Ohio travelled on a similar vector, where an already sizeable 15-point edge ballooned to 26-points last year.
To put it even more simply: make the following assumptions. Assume that Barack Obama gets the same amount of support for each ideological group that he did in 2008. Which is a reach--there is no reason to expect him to get 20% among conservatives again (he also nabbed 60% of moderates and 89% of liberals). But, for the sake of argument, assume it anyway. If the ideological makeup of the electorate does not change from 2010, Barack Obama claims just 49% of the vote. He also heads under 50% of the vote in several states he carried: Florida, Indiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia.
One counterargument to this is that the larger presidential electorate automatically presumes a less conservative electorate, because midterm electorates are comprised of more regular (read: conservative) voters. And while that is often true, it is not a guarantee. The Lib/Con spread was actually incrementally wider in the 2004 Presidential election year than it wound up being for the 2006 midterm.
The bottom line is that President Obama needs a Election Day 2012 composition that is at least 60%-65% comprised of moderates (many of whom are left-leaning, but don't want to self-identify as liberal) and liberals. Absent that, even a solid performance with those two groups is unlikely to be a guarantee of victory. He cannot run away from the left and simultaneously expect them to turn out in droves on his behalf next November. The Democrats, and his second term, cannot survive another "enthusiasm gap."
2. Yes, the President does have a little bit of a "base problem"
Another article of faith among the political chattering classes is the notion that the idea that President Obama has alienated the left in any meaningful way is a fiction bounced around among "liberal elites." They often cite polling data, pointing out that Obama's approval rating among Democrats and liberals remains "high." And, indeed, his numbers with those two groups are far from free fall.
But they aren't that great, either.
Consider a recent national poll (PDF) conducted by Public Policy Polling. Independent of their work for Daily Kos, this poll explored the presidential contest, and found President Obama staked to leads over the entire GOP field.
That, indeed, was the good news. But buried within the numbers are two items that should be cautionary notes for Team Obama. The first was an issue of ideological makeup--while there were more liberals than usual (probably because PPP takes the smart step of allowing people to identify as "somewhat" liberal or conservative, allowing some self-professed moderates to out themselves), it also maintained a 41% conservative contingent.
The second issue was that despite a laudable 61/33 spread among moderates, the President's job approval was underwater. The culprit? Godawful numbers among conservatives (more on this later), and the fact that Obama's approval numbers among liberals (both "somewhat" and "very") lingered in the low 80s. That isn't spectacular, when one considers that President Obama locked down 89% of liberals in 2008, and the Democrats snared 90% of them last year, as well.
Some pollsters have it even worse: this week's Marist/McClatchy poll had the liberal job approval numbers at 68/24. Some polls don't have it nearly as bad: this week's installment of the Daily Kos/SEIU State of the Nation poll had it at 88% approval.
Nevertheless, that is a group that should be pretty close to unanimous. And they are not. If the President cannot up those numbers by a few points, there is serious peril there for him. Because, as you'll see, it might prove difficult for him to get the numbers to move elsewhere.
3. It is nearly impossible for the President to replicate his 2008 performance among conservatives.
There are few reasonable scenarios by which we can assume that the President will, as he did in 2008, attract 20% of the conservative vote next November. The past two years have clearly seen a sharp polarization among conservative voters, who have basically written off both this President and his party.
Consider the PPP national poll from mid-April alluded to above. In that poll, President Obama was in the teens with "somewhat" conservative voters, and in single digits among the "very" conservative ones. This tracks well with this week's Daily Kos/SEIU State of the Nation Poll, where his approval spread with conservatives sits at a mere 12/81 spread.
Furthermore, beyond mere approval numbers, last year's vote tallies also suggest that it is unlikely that the President will see 2008 levels of support among conservatives again. In the twenty statewide races from 2009-2010 which I tracked, the Democratic nominee did no better than 18% of the vote. In the majority of those twenty races, the Democratic nominee failed to crack into the teens, including three races that Democrats actually won. Nationally, Democrats running for the House received just 13% of the conservative vote.
There is some precedent to suggest that Obama's 20% of the vote may have been a bit inflated, owing to conservative mistrust of John McCain. His 20% was substantially higher than the 15% won by John Kerry in 2004, and was also higher than the 17% won by Al Gore in 2000.
4. The President already has a solid standing with moderate voters.
In the blockquoted piece at the start of this essay, the author lauded President Obama for the tax cut deal with Republicans, in essence arguing that any loss of support among liberals would be offset by the re-evaluation of the man among moderates.
Two pieces of data seem to disprove that.
The November edition of PPP's national polling, conducted before the tax cut deal, showed that the President was already doing quite well (61/34) among moderates. He was also doing extremely well (90/8) among liberals. Earlier, I noted where the President's approval now stood in that monthly survey (low 80s) among liberals.
Meanwhile, in that same April survey, where was the President with moderate voters? 61%. A solid performance, to be sure, but also exactly the same percentage support he enjoyed among moderates last November.
Therefore, only two conclusions can be drawn. Either (a) the tax cuts paid no dividends with moderate voters, or (b) any positive re-evaluation of the President post-tax cuts by centrist moderates was nullified by a dip among left-of-center "moderates". Therefore, the overall number remained constant.
You see, a cursory look at polling data reveals one truism: a large number of moderate voters...simply aren't. A load of them are actually left-of-center voters who are uncomfortable, after decades of the term being gradually hammered into an epithet, with self-identifying as "liberal."
The proof is in the data. Even in the ugliness of the 2009-2010 electoral cycle, Democratic candidates carried a majority of the moderate vote in nineteen of the 20 statewide races I tracked. The sole exception was Jon Corzine, who nabbed just 45% of the moderate vote in the 2009 New Jersey gubernatorial election (remember when people thought Chris Christie was a moderate? Fun times.).
President Obama snared 60% of the moderate vote, according to the 2008 exit polls. Looking at the recent polling data, he still draws favorable job approval numbers from anywhere between 54-61% of moderate voters. I wouldn't necessarily argue that he has "maxed out" his support among this corps of voters, but I also think it is silly to argue that there is a vast, untapped reservoir of undecided/hostile moderate voters that Obama could bring home by being more conciliatory to conservative positions.
Indeed, given the fact that moderates tend towards the left-of-center in their voting preferences in recent years, it is not crazy to suggest that Obama might gain more yardage with this group by tacking to the left, as opposed to finding common cause with the right or "center" (which, for far too many in the political analysis community, are interchangeable terms).
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Virtually every poll over the past few months has shared a common theme: the President is on shaky footing with the electorate, but continues to hold leads over the potential GOP field. This rather strange dichotomy is owed to two characteristics of that Republican contingent: they are still very undefined to the electorate, but what the electorate knows of them, they do not like.
Given that a bit of fratricide on the GOP side appears inevitable as the field of declared challengers begins to grow, President Obama will have a great deal of flexibility. Triangulating might allow him to frame himself as the "adult in the room", but it also runs a very real risk of leaving loads of potentially decisive voters on the sidelines. However, the prospect of a real spectacle on the other side may also allow Obama the ability to tend to his base on some big-ticket items and still look reasonable by comparison, given the tea-flavored festival that seems bound to begin (and already has, if the ideologically flexible Tim Pawlenty is any indication).
Certainly, other factors beyond ideological positioning are of paramount importance. If voters still feel the country is off on the wrong track, and that the economy is stagnant, no amount of framing and posturing is likely to resurrect the President's electoral prospects. On the other hand, if genuine signs of healing and improvement lift the electorate's spirits, the President becomes a betting favorite no matter how the GOP primary plays out.
The bottom line here is that there is reasonable evidence that the risks of alienating or neglecting the base could well outweigh any potential rewards for doing so. This is not 1996, and the data makes it a bit tough to see where any erosion in liberal enthusiasm or support is going to be offset by surging Presidential support from the center or right.
Which is something that the Obama 2012 team might do well to consider as they position their man for the inevitable future battles that they will face with the GOP inside the beltway.