Whether Obama's reelection is considered a slam-dunk, an uncertain proposition, or an impossibility depends entirely on the data you consider a credible indicator these days.
If you ask some on the right (as well as more than a few depressed Democrats), Obama is toast. The data to support their case are straightforward: no president (since the advent of modern survey research) has been reelected with an approval rating below 48 percent. Obama's numbers these days are below that threshold and are just south of Jimmy Carter's at this point in his presidency. Furthermore, the highest unemployment rate that accompanied a president's reelection is 7.2 percent, a far cry from today's 9 percent. Republican voters are more excited. Young voters aren't going to show up when their unemployment rate is through the roof. Not to mention, the new electoral college map hands Republicans six freebie electors if they simply hold the states McCain won in 2008. Simple conclusion: the Obama reelection effort is doomed.
Or is it?
Consider the case made by Obama-optimists: the long-term trends are in his favor. Back in 2009, James Carville and Ruy Teixeira were writing books, declaring the somewhat inevitable demographic-driven decline of the GOP. Even today, Obama retains strength among minorities and young voters. (The latest Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin report makes the case that demographics are a strength for Obama.) Obama's campaign is raising millions upon millions and saving it all to spend in the general election. Not a single television in America won't be bombarded with ads reminding them of those Republican meanies in Congress and of who was in charge when we got Osama bin Laden. Republicans may put up a fight, but he's just too strong a campaigner. Case closed.
So which is it?
Count me somewhere in the middle.
Obama optimists are right that demographics are changing in ways that largely favor their side. African Americans made up 13 percent of the electorate in 2008, a jump from 2004, when they comprised 11 percent. I've got no reason to believe that the Obama campaign's turnout efforts will be less successful among African Americans this time around, with his approval ratings still sky high (84 percent in August). Latino voters, on the other hand, jumped from 8 percent to 9 percent, and Latinos accounted for more than half of the population growth in the U.S. during the last decade, with large numbers in swing states like Florida and Nevada. Obama won two thirds of Latino voters in 2008.
Here's where things get tricky.
Obama's approval rating among Latinos has fallen precipitously since his election, falling from a high of 82 percent down to a low of 48 percent in Gallup's August polling. There's also the question of whether or not young voters will be as eager to show up this time around, given that their approval of his presidency has fallen, as well.
It's one thing to assume that the electorate will look as favorable in terms of makeup, and it's an even bigger leap to assume that an electorate that demographically looks the same will vote the same.
On the other hand, the historical data points about approval rating and reelection chances ought not provide too much comfort to hopeful Republicans. Voters may disapprove of Obama, but they disapprove of just about everything else, too. (Congress, I'm looking at you.) That low-water mark of 48 percent was set by President George W. Bush, preceded by Bill Clinton's 50 percent, preceded by Ronald Reagan's at 58 percent. Notice the trend? It may simply be that voters are more and more frustrated with their government and find themselves facing elections where they are more willing to vote for a candidate they disapprove of.
It is of course too early to predict Obama's reelection chances. Republicans have not yet chosen a nominee, and who the party chooses will have an impact on the contours of the race to come. As for those thinking Obama is a sure bet, or that he's a lost cause, there's plenty of evidence that neither are right.