A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.
After President Obama's faltering, uncertain performance in the debt-ceiling crisis, and with polling showing self-described “conservatives” outnumbering “liberals” by crushing, consistent margins, Republicans ought to face the upcoming presidential race with eagerness and confidence.
Nevertheless, political professionals uniformly predict that the president could easily cruise to reelection and will, at the very least, wage a close, hard-fought campaign against even the most formidable Republican opponent.
This glaring contradiction between the nation’s ideological tilt to the right and the president’s continued status as frontrunner for 2012 exposes two important secrets about voting patterns of the American electorate.
First, ideological orientation seldom determines the success or failure of presidential contenders. And second, race remains a decisive factor for enough U.S. voters to dictate the outcome of close national elections.
On ideology, Republicans felt powerfully encouraged by the results of an Aug. 1 Gallup poll showing nearly twice as many American adults calling themselves “conservative” (41 percent) as those who see themselves as “liberal” (21 percent). The survey reports that these numbers have remained surprisingly constant since 2009, and that liberals have languished below 25 percent for nearly 20 years.
Similar numbers in all major surveys show that the president would have to do far more than rally his liberal base to earn victory in 2012. If both Democrats and Republicans drew 90 percent support from liberals and conservatives, respectively, Barack Obama would need to carry a farfetched 85 percent of self-described moderates in order to reach a bare majority of 51 percent—a dramatic improvement from the 60 percent of moderates he won in 2008, according to exit polls. No candidate, not even landslide victors like Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson, has ever managed to prevail among middle-of-the-roaders by the unimaginable 6-to-1 margin that Obama would, theoretically, need.
How, then, could the president plausibly win reelection?
By concentrating on one of the most significant but frequently overlooked aspects of electoral behavior: In presidential contests, voters seldom (or never) make final decisions based on ideology.