Obama in 2012 -- Why He's a 3-1 Favorite

While it's hard enough to predict tomorrow's weather or the 2010 midterms, here's an objective morning line on the 2012 presidential race based on three criteria and three variables. Why should Nate Silver have all the fun?

I personally lived the cliché that a week -- or a day -- is a lifetime in politics. Still, there are patterns and rhythms that, while not embodying political science, are predictive. So here are several that make Obama a 3-1 favorite for reelection and a winner by eight percentage points, in a two-way or three way.

Criterion #1 - Political Zeitgeist. Until this week, the leading political story line was anti-incumbent anger as exemplified by Tea Partiers. And polls have shown that the Republican base has been some 20 percentage points more motivated to turn out to kick out Democrats, as was true in reverse in 2006 and 2008. The hostility to government and the governing party has been as high as the 1994 tidal wave that swept the GOP into power.

But since national Republican leaders have obviously decided just to oppose nearly everything Obama has proposed -- and in snarling, not morning-in-America fashion -- they are vulnerable to being branded as "The Party of No." Rep. John Boehner's closing argument against health care on the House floor kept using the words "hell no...hell no...hell no," which in tone and content played right into Democrats hands. As many have noted, it seems dumb to campaign this Fall for an insurance industry takeover of our health care system. Also, the percentage of voters who are registered Republicans is near all-time lows.

As for the repeated, Fox-y refrain that Obama's some kind of socialist, his favorable numbers are where Reagan's and Clinton's were at this point in their presidencies. In a contest between throw-out-the-bums and The-Party-of-No, let's call it a draw.

Political Advantage: none.

Criterion #2 - Policy Zeitgeist. Until Sunday's vote, an average of all polls would have shown about a 15 percentage point margin against health care reform. Not any more. The first post-vote USA Today-Gallup poll had it 49%-40% in favor. While tens of millions will concretely benefit from various provisions, most Americans won't be aware of any change at all. In this context, can the rhetoric against big-government really trump a law that keeps your child with pre-existing conditions on health insurance?

The next big policy debate is over financial regulatory reform. Again, a contest between a party intending to protect consumers from another economic collapse and a party siding with big banks causing it, the GOP seems to be digging themselves deeper in their hole. Or as Sen. Durbin once blurted out, "this place is owned by the banks."

Indeed, on nearly all other major issues, there are real majorities for Democrats -- on the environment, choice, education. Even on terrorism, Obama currently has high approval ratings. Is there a convincing policy argument to urge a return to the good old days of George W. Bush?

And since 2012 will involve a sitting president, his own record weighs on the scale of policy. Does Obama objectively have a defensible list of accomplishments to run on? With the economy rebounding -- and with a series of laws on women's pay, children's smoking, student loans, credit cards, and of course health care --the answer appears to be yes.

Policy Advantage: Democrats.

Criterion #3 -- Candidate Skills. While most coverage of a presidential campaign is about a candidate's skills, tactics and gaffes, these indicators rank far behind political and policy trend-lines. The Vietnam War in 1968, economy in 1980, Watergate in 1976 and terrorism in 2004 were far more electorally influential than anything Nixon, Reagan, Carter or Bush did.

But a nominee's personal assets can still tip the scale. Surely JFK's presence and performance in the Kennedy-Nixon debates were probably determinative in a contest with a .1% popular vote margin.

For Republicans, it's fair to argue that Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, policies aside, do have presidential candidate skills. Romney's drive, look, focus, ability to speak and to take a punch would make him a formidable general election candidate. In a different way, Huckabee's great humor, quickness and affability would be of enormous value in a presidential contest --or a talk show -- and raise the question of exactly what was in the water in his home town of Hope, Arkansas in the 1960s. (For purposes of space and reality, I omit Sarah Palin.)

Barack Obama is frankly different. I assume that when the Gingrichs, Limbaughs and McCains watch Obama perform, they secretly say to themselves, "what planet is this brother from?" His now proven abilities to think, communicate, and stay calm and concentrated are impossible to deny. Those press tick-tocks about how he arrived at his Afghanistan decision and health care end-game reveal an executive who understands how to weigh facts to arrive at conclusions, not just assert conclusions and then find "facts." And at the level of pure politics, as this past week's health care resurrection showed, he's more Chicago than Harvard (in a good way). The next time some critic sneers that he's a "professor," it won't have the same ring.

Fair-minded analysts would also have to rank the 44th President along with both Roosevelts, Kennedy, and Clinton as one of the five most talented of the past century. (Reagan has superlative communications skills but his work ethic and inability to process information keep him from the top tier.) It's hard to recall many serious gaffes by Obama or instances when he didn't rise to the occasion - from how he was sabotaged by Rev. Wright's sermons and then side-swiped by Scott Brown's pick-up truck, yet each time Houdini-like he escaped. And prevailed.

In the Fall of 2012, it's more likely that he responds well to that year's pivotal moments, whatever they are, than the Republican nominee.

Skill Advantage: Democrats

Variable #1: Another Big Attack. There's no predicting whether one will occur or how - or how the public would respond. Is it a Bay of Pigs or 9/11 moment when, presidential accountability notwithstanding, there's a rally-around-the-flag reaction that helps the incumbent? Or can Cheney and Giuliani exploit the event to paint Obama as weak? Look at how much damage they inflicted after the Underwear Bomber even though no one died there.

What we do know is that both parties are pre-spinning policies with this in mind (from Gitmo to terrorist trials). This is one thing that could create its own zeitgeist, as 9/11 did politically - that is, become the lens everything is seen through.

Advantage: Republicans.

Variable #2: GDP Growth. Over past decades, the best predictor of presidential winners is whether GDP growth is more than 3% in the year of the election. If so, it's very likely that the party of the president in office wins (Kennedy/Johnson, Reagan, Clinton). Because the effects of the Stimulus are continuing and because GDP growth has been 5-6% in the past two quarters - although from the base of a steep recession - it's probable that the economy will be growing at a healthy clip in two years. But will a Greece-like monkey wrench create a double-dip recession that 44 is blamed for?

Advantage: Democrats.

Variable #3: Will Bloomberg Run as an Anti-Party Independent? As a New Yorker who knows something about the way he thinks (and ran against him in 2001), it's at least 50-50.

Remembering an erratic guy like Ross Perot spending $60 million to get 19% in 1992, watching anti-Washington "populism", and understanding exactly how a few billion dollar self-funded candidacy could move votes, the 69 year-old Bloomberg is considering this last hurrah.

Of course Electoral College rules make it hard, unprecedented actually, for a third party candidate to get 270 electoral votes -- and it's hard to see how this exemplar of Wall Street could get Main Street votes after the banking collapse of 2008, but that's where the magic of billions in ads comes in. And he's been told before that he couldn't succeed and then became NYC's richest person and top office-holder.

If he runs, does he take more from the Republican nominee (since he's an economic conservative who ran and won twice as a Republican) or from Obama (because he's a social liberal on choice, gays, the environment)? It depends on how he runs, and that depends on polls in 2012. Bloomberg, unlike Obama and Romney, could go left or right on health care reform -- indeed, he's never said whether he was for or against. But in a race with, say, two successful businessmen like Romney and Bloomberg -- and given Obama's deep base among minorities, liberals, professionals -- the best bet is that Bloomberg would take more from the non-incumbent Republican businessman.

Advantage: Democrats.

Add it all up: Obama is ahead on four of five benchmarks (one is a wash)...he won last time by 53%-46%...there's no new bad war or recession that would lead him to lose seven million votes between 2008 and 2012...four of six elected incumbent presidents seeking reelection won over the past half century (Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, but not Carter or Bush 41). It all points to Barack Obama being a 3-1 favorite and winning by eight points -- either 54%-46% in a two-way or a 44%-36%-20% in a three-way.

You can (maybe) go to the bank with that -- a community bank! .