Eric Alterman: The Election Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

The reaction to the blockbuster jobs report makes it seem like President Obama has a second term in the bag. But as Eric Alterman writes, super-PAC funds could make all the difference.

02.04.12 4:15 PM ET

If the Obama administration expected jobs numbers like those reported on Friday, they sure kept it to themselves. A jump of  243,000 nonfarm jobs in January, with concomitant drop in the unemployment rate from 8.5 percent to 8.3—its lowest rate since Obama took office—proved a shock to almost everyone. Huzzahs were heard around the world, both from European stock exchanges and, particularly, Wall Street, which did its part for the White House’s campaign commercials by sending the NASDAQ to an 11-year high and the Dow Jones Industrial Average to its best close since the current economic crisis began. Friday, meanwhile, marked the S&P’s the longest winning streak since January 2011.

Immediately, members of the punditocracy jumped to their keyboards to rewrite the narrative of the 2012 election. While Barack Obama might not wish to unfurl a “Mission Accomplished” banner, wrote two Politico writers, the numbers sure provided “an unexpected boon for Obama’s reelection bid and a serious hurdle for his top competitor, Mitt Romney, who has staked his campaign on a jobs-and-economy message.” The numbers impressed nearly everyone not currently employed by a Republican presidential candidate or Fox News. Politico quoted Steve Schmidt (who ran John McCain’s 2008 campaign) admitting:

Those numbers are good news for the country and they are good news, politically, for the president ... It puts particular pressure on Mitt Romney as the nominee to offer a big, bold, sweeping agenda of reform and economic growth and contrasts with the president’s vision. He’s simply not going to be able to run a campaign built on a foundation of criticism.

Indeed, under a headline, “Good Jobs News for America Is Bad News for Mitt Romney,” National Journal explained that if indicators continue to improve, Romney may have to tweak his argument from "Obama has failed" to "things would be a lot better by now" if someone else had been president. That sounds a lot like Obama's case—that without his policies, things would have been much worse—and may be just as hard to sell.” Indeed, nobody sounded more out of touch Friday than those House Republicans who apparently had not gotten the news. “Today is an indication of another failure of this president’s policies—36 months in a row of 8-percent-plus unemployment,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, chairman of the House Republican Conference. “The American people are still asking, ‘Where are the jobs?’ ” added House Speaker John Boehner.

Obama successfully resisted the urge to take a victory lap. “[T]here’s still far too many Americans that still need a job,” he admitted, “These numbers will go up and down in the coming months.” That these numbers can and will change many times over is something that the president knows, but the members of press often forget, so focused are they on who won “the day” rather than who is building a foundation upon which to win in November. Another critical point that is often lost amidst talk of a national election narrative is the cliché that the election is really 50 (or so) separate elections. Unemployment rates in the key swing states of Michigan and Florida, for instance, are still closer to 10 percent than they are to 8 percent, and no president has won reelection since FDR with numbers above 7.5 percent.

What’s more, the underlying foundation of the president’s potential vote tally remains surprisingly shaky, particularly given all the muck in which his all-but-certain-opponent, Mitt Romney, has been forced to roll through during this particularly nasty primary season. Romney no doubt hurt himself with many voters with his obtuse comments about the “very poor” and the pleasure he takes in firing people. (To say nothing of the constant barrage of negative comments about his days at Bain Capital and his meager tax rate, spearheaded by the kamikaze candidacy of Newt Gingrich.) But as Politico’s Jim VandeHei has pointed out, unpredictable economic numbers aside, polls show Obama either tied with or trailing Romney in key swing states, including Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina.

What’s more, money will be a factor in 2012 as never before and we simply don’t know what wreckage will be left for Democrats in the wake of the tsunami unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Obama and the Democrats may enjoy a fundraising advantage by traditional measures, but what will that mean in a world where Karl Rove alone says he can raise $240 million for his American Crossroads GPS, and the Koch brothers plan to spend $200 million or so to various conservative groups willing to deploy this cash—and much, much more—in whatever way necessary to sway voters?

So far, according to recent FEC filings reported on by Mother Jones, “Republican-leaning super-PACs focused on the presidential race or backing a particular candidate raised more than seven times what Democratic-leaning super-PAC's raised, more than $60 million to the Democrats’ $8 million.” And Obama can hardly expect to rely on the outpouring of emotion—call it “hope”—that his first campaign inspired, as the young people, the minorities and the rest of Americans who cannot usually be bothered to participate in the election process who turned out last time have learned to their dismay what Mario Cuomo meant when he observed that candidates “campaign in poetry but govern in prose.”

You wouldn’t know it from the giddy press coverage, but the election remains a toss-up. Bet on it.