When leading pundits, pollsters and prognosticators seem to agree that the re-election of President Obama is all but inevitable, why do grassroots Democrats seem so anxious and depressed?
If the president’s most ardent supporters feel soul-deep certainty that their candidate has richly earned another term in office, then how is it that they universally acknowledge that he’ll draw far fewer votes than he did as an untried freshman senator four years ago?
A revealing report by Joe Garofoli in the San Francisco Chronicle found local liberals “so freaked out about the prospect of President Obama losing his re-election bid that they can’t sleep at night. Can’t talk about anything else. Can’t stop parsing the latest polls.” In a particularly alarming confession, one retired educator said she’s become “so distraught she can’t exercise.” David Plouffe, a top Obama strategist, found such panic attacks so common among his fellow Democrats that he’s even coined a name for the victims: he calls them “bed-wetters.”
In a sense, the recent media mantra about Chris Christie “rescuing” or “saving” the Obama campaign reflects the same sense of desperation about the president’s prospects. Why would a confident, successful chief executive who has masterfully concluded his triumphant term ever require rescue from the boisterous governor of New Jersey? If a few warm words about from a combative, partisan Republican look like a life preserver for Barack Obama, it would seem to suggest that he was, in fact, previously drowning.
But even before the president’s show of compassionate command in dealing with Superstorm Sandy, the most important swing state surveys showed a clear advantage for Obama. The New York Times ran a front page story six days before the election on Quinnipiac Polls that showed Obama ahead in Florida, Virginia and Ohio—and with a surprisingly comfortable five-point lead in the all-important Buckeye State. The political futures/betting site Intrade has consistently rated the odds for Obama’s re-election above 60 percent, and often reaching 70 percent. Nate Silver’s prestigious 538 blog for The New York Times has crunched all available numbers and rates the president’s chances for Electoral College victory at around three to one. Most importantly of all, a Halloween Gallup Poll of more than 1,000 adults found a big majority who expected the president to win re-election, with only 32 percent predicting success for Mitt Romney—an even lower number than the 36 percent who sensed GOP victory six months ago.
Nevertheless, Republicans look and sound notably more energized and exuberant than their Democratic counterparts as they swagger with self-assurance toward the electoral finish line. They point out the recent expansion of the swing states map, with one-time Democratic strongholds like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Minnesota suddenly rated as toss-ups, and receiving money and attention from both parties. The GOP also notes that the Quinnipiac Poll giving Obama a big lead in Ohio showed Romney with a similarly comfortable advantage (five points) among Ohio independents—and in a state so closely divided between Republicans and Democrats the candidate who carries independents will almost certainly prevail. Moreover, new unemployment numbers due for release on Friday won’t help the president much if they show another slight decline, but can hurt him badly if they push up once again above 8 percent (as many economists expect)—putting a serious, last-minute dent in the administration argument about steady, relentless improvement.
Meanwhile, the sharply contrasting tone of the two campaigns as they make their closing pitches to the American people hardly suggests greater confidence on the part of the Democrats. Though Romney talks of “big change” and grand plans for the future, the Obama machine continues to emphasize the harshest possible personal attacks on the character of the GOP nominee. Most recently, Democrats have even pushed the absurd idea that Mitt wants to abolish FEMA and to leave disaster-stricken citizens to their own devices. While the Republicans released the single most optimistic and inspiring ad of the whole campaign (a little masterpiece of mood and editing called “Momentum”) the Democrats continue with the surly, hostile, aggrieved attitude that served the president so poorly in the third (and final) debate.
In any sort of competition, the side that displays more visible anger and indignation is only very rarely the side that’s actually winning. The president can’t inspire his weary troops with a sense of purpose and certainty when he occasionally calls to mind David Plouffe’s memorable phrase and comes across like the bed-wetter in chief.
Sensing the trickle-down negativity from Obama’s high command, many loyal Democrats have become bitterly critical of the president’s political leadership even as they grit their teeth and signal an intention to vote for him again. Frank Bruni of The New York Times, for instance, slammed the candidate’s off-putting truculence that “undercut his high-minded, big vision brand” and revealed a “school yard nastiness” unworthy of a hope and change presidency.
The president occasionally comes across like the bed-wetter in chief.
Richard Cohen of The Washington Post questioned Obama’s authenticity and suggested that “somewhere between the campaign and the White House itself, Obama got lost. It turned out he had no cause at all…I wish he was the man I once mistook him for."
Frederick C. Harris, director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia, Obama’s alma mater, concluded in The New York Times that “the last four years must be reckoned a disappointment. Whether it ends in 2013 or 2017, the Obama presidency has already marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality.”
And Oliver Stone, the Oscar-winning filmmaker and political gadfly, renounced his own prior support for Obama and released a new book, The Untold History of the United States, co-authored with historian Peter Kuznick. “The country Obama inherited was indeed in shambles,” they wrote, “but Obama took a bad situation and in certain ways made it worse.”
Despite the air of disillusionment that hovers over the Obama candidacy like a toxic smog, Democrats still insist that their man will win, while simultaneously conveying the distinct impression that they won’t feel entirely shocked if he doesn’t.
The incongruous contrast between downcast Dems and aroused Republicans means one of two things about the ultimate electoral outcome:
Yes, it is entirely possible that the numbers-crunchers and odds-makers are correct, and that Obama will eke out a fragile Electoral College victory, even if he loses the popular vote. But his own supporters associate little joy with this prospect, because they dislike the crude and often demeaning way that their own side has played politics and resent the fact that hope and change has become rage and blame.
On the other hand, it’s also conceivable that Republicans are justified in their serene and cheerful confidence and that they will mobilize an unexpected tidal wave by a silent majority comprised of precisely the sort of conservative skeptics who regularly hang-up on prying pollsters. In this context, there’s nothing about the president’s capable performance in the aftermath of a hurricane, making those same reassuring gestures that any president would try to make, to disrupt the flow of a sweeping, new-consensus, big mandate election.
Either way, there’s scant basis for exaltation or bliss as the incumbent president’s campaign spends the final hours before a fateful referendum by desperately scraping for loose votes in a half dozen painfully close states that he carried effortlessly four years earlier.
Six days before the election, Mark Halperin of Time magazine and MSNBC (two media outlets reliably supportive or Obama and coruscatingly critical of Romney) delineated his own view of the three possible results on election night. He suggested that we could, indeed, see a breathlessly close Obama win, or a breathlessly close Romney win. But he also identified a third possibility: a convincing, decisive, landslide Romney victory that might startle the political establishment. In other words two of the three possible scenarios would end up delivering a new tenant to the White House.
Despite polls and calculations and betting lines there are still sound reasons that few Republicans would want to trade places with their Democratic counterparts as the nation hurtles relentlessly toward decision day.