Barack Obama

Romney's a tough sell but Obama's no shoo-in

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 April, 2012, 12:00am


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With Rick Santorum's exit from the US presidential field this week, Mitt Romney has effectively won the Republican nomination to take on Barack Obama in November.

The bruising nomination contest has done little to endear Romney to the electorate, especially independents. His Republican opponents have caricatured him as inconsistent in his political positions and out-of-touch with most voters, partly because of his wealth.

This is reflected in the potentially significant lead that Obama has in head-to-head match-up polls against Romney.

In this context, some have already declared Obama an overwhelming favourite for re-election. However, this assessment is overdone and Romney could yet win in November.

It is sometimes forgotten that Obama's job approval ratings have been poor (sometimes far below 50 per cent) during the last 12 months.

In the past 40 years, those presidents that have been re-elected have generally had job approval ratings over 50 per cent in March of their re-election years, as was true of Bill Clinton (1996), Ronald Reagan (1984) and Richard Nixon (1972). Conversely, the ratings of Jimmy Carter (1980), and George H.W. Bush (1992) were all well below 50 per cent at the same point in the electoral cycle, and they went on to defeats that year.

The only partial exception is George W. Bush in 2004, who went on from average approval ratings of just below or around 50 per cent in March to win a close re-election contest in November.

One of the drags on Obama's prospects is the high jobless rate, which also cursed Gerald Ford, Carter and George H.W. Bush in their re-election years. The only president to win re-election in the last 40 years with a jobless rate above 7 per cent was Reagan in 1984.

One of the keys to Reagan's success was the perception among voters in 1984 of robust economic recovery after the recession of the early 1980s.

For Obama to win, it would be enormously useful for him to have a similar positive economic headwind going into November. The still weak unemployment picture has improved in recent months and, if this continues, will undercut Romney's attacks on what he perceives to be Obama's mismanagement of the US economy since 2009.

Of course, many political hazards, such as an Israeli attack on Iran, could yet surface and reframe the presidential election in an uncertain direction.

But, for now, while Obama is not an overwhelming favourite, he has a slightly better than an evens prospect of a second term.

Andrew Hammond is an associate partner at ReputationInc. He was formerly US editor at Oxford Analytica, and a special adviser in the government of prime minister Tony Blair