We’re now less than seven months away from the 2012 presidential election. What does the race look like, from the perspective of battleground Ohio?
I think the 2012 election will be much less emotion-charged than 2008 was. In 2008 many hoped that Barack Obama would be a transformative figure whose election would finally slay the dragons of racism in America. Many others were panicked by the financial abyss yawning open beneath our feet and were looking for the candidate they felt was best suited to deal with the crisis.
Barring unforeseen events, neither of those emotional themes will be at work in 2012. President Obama still has many supporters, but I don’t know anyone who views him as a kind of magical arbiter capable of bringing people together through sheer force of oratory and personality. His time in office has demonstrated, to all but the true believers, that the President is a politician who makes the same kinds of political calculations that other politicians do. The hopes for a miraculous national reconciliation and a perfect leader that motivated many people in 2008 just don’t seem to exist now.
Nor does the terror that gripped some people in 2008. Worries about a complete financial meltdown cut both ways in that election; some voted for Barack Obama because he seemed to deal with the crisis without drama, others voted for John McCain because he was more experienced. Now, I think, people are not panicky, but rather are concerned and angry — concerned because, years later, the economy still stinks and jobs remain hard to come by, and angry because our political leaders don’t seem to be doing anything much about it.
What does this mean? First, I think fewer people will be deeply involved in the election and a smaller percentage of people will vote. No one will be arguing that the election offers a chance to vote for a perfect candidate. Second, I think many people have already made up their minds, based purely on their assessment of President Obama’s performance. They either think he has done a good job in avoiding another Great Depression despite the obstructionism of his opponents or believe he has spent recklessly and put the country on the path to financial ruin. Even the most powerful political ads aren’t going to change their competing perceptions.
Third, I think many people are still reserving judgment and want to see how things play out. They’ll be making two judgments in the coming months. First, is Mitt Romney up to the job? Can he handle the pressure and juggle the competing demands without meltdowns or gross missteps? If Romney passes that test, then they’ll think about whether President Obama has done a good job.
Elections in which an incumbent is on the ballot are almost always referendums on the incumbent’s performance, and I think 2012 will be no different. Stripped of illusion and romantic hopes, undecided voters will consider whether the economy is improving in ways that affect their lives. Are family members and friends who have been out of work getting hired, or are other acquaintances getting laid off? They’ll look at gas prices, and unemployment statistics, and the stock market, and I think those indicators will tell the tale. If unemployment rates inch back up, and gas prices remain at or above $4 a gallon, President Obama will face a very tough road.