Obama Leads and Democrats Crow, But Watch Out

The polls point to victory, but experience says not so fast. Democratic operatives list the five factors that could ruin their rosy road back to the White House. David Freedlander reports.

Democrats who woke up Thursday morning listening to NPR (and let’s face it, most people who woke up this morning listening to NPR were Democrats) found themselves with an extra spring in their step as they headed out the door.

Leading the broadcast was a story about a new Pew research poll that gave Barack Obama the biggest lead at this point in the election calendar since Bill Clinton’s lead over the hapless Bob Dole in 1996.

Even better from the Dems’ perspective: the poll was conducted before Mitt Romney’s now infamous “47 percent” comments came to light, revealing that the former Massachusetts governor thinks that about half of Americans—all of them, apparently, Obama supporters—see themselves as victims who depend on the government and resist taking responsibility for their own lives. Also last week, the Mideast was bursting into flames, and still Obama managed to hold his lead.

The Pew numbers look even worse for Romney on closer inspection: half of all voters view Romney unfavorably, according to the poll; Obama has a three-to-one edge in his ability to connect with ordinary Americans. Even on Romney’s supposed core strength—the economy—more voters now trust Obama to do the right thing.

It was enough to make even the most dour of Democrats do a little dance. But is it too soon to celebrate?

“We are a party that panics and worries,” said Bob Shrum, a veteran of both the John Kerry and Al Gore presidential campaigns, and a contributor to The Daily Beast. “There is going to be no overconfidence.”

Perhaps there shouldn’t be. Because while things look rosy for Obama now, there is, as they say, a hell of a lot of baseball left to play. And six weeks in politics can be like six lifetimes.

"Given the volatility this political season, I don’t think anybody should plan to get to bed before midnight on Election Day,” said Donna Brazile, campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000. “Romney has had a bad few weeks, but it is happening in September. If it were happening in October it would be another story.”

Here are the five potential pitfalls Democratic political pros say could trip up their man and result in a President Romney.

The Economy

It’s the economy, stupid—right? This was always Romney’s best bet: in brief, it ain’t getting any better, and by every economic measure Obama should be in dire political straits right now. Plus, no matter how maladroit Romney appears to be, the real unemployment rate (including people who’ve stopped looking for work) remains at a disastrously high 15 percent. Monthly jobless figures will be released twice more between now and November, and Obama’s allies are running out of ways to spin another series of bad numbers.

It’s simple: No president has been elected with a jobless rate over 8 percent since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. The Romney camp keeps promising that they are going to reset their campaign and focus on jobs and the economy. If they ever actually do that, Obama will quickly find himself on the defensive.

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Unexpected Events

Tad Devine, a senior strategist for John Kerry’s failed 2004 bid, said, “I can tell you we didn’t like it when that bin Laden tape came out the Friday before the election.”

Last week’s embassy protests throughout the Middle East, and particularly the killing of the Libyan ambassador and three of his staff, could have sunk Obama, say some Democrats, but the president was saved at least in part by Romney’s miscalculation of putting out a highly critical—and factually incorrect—statement while events were still unfolding. That misstep turned the narrative into how Romney would handle (or mishandle) a crisis, rather than keeping the focus on Obama. Romney’s blunder also distracted from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s further saber rattling with Iran. Next time Obama may not be so lucky: Greece could still default or pull out of the euro; Israel could attack Iran; China could take offense at the White House’s recent aggressive move to crack down on trade practices; the shaky stock market could take another dive; and so on. The Obama administration has at times seemed dogged by bad news that was not of its own doing, from the oil spill in the Gulf to the European debt crisis to the tsunami and resulting nuclear crisis in Japan. Perhaps he’ll get through October in the clear, but perhaps not.


“Complacency is our enemy,” said Peter Fenn, a veteran of the 2008 Obama effort.

And while the sky-high enthusiasm of four years ago could never have been maintained, Democrats still have to find a way to rally those disillusioned supporters long after the last remaining “Hope” posters have fallen from the walls of college dorm rooms around the country. One strategy has been to gin up enthusiasm not in favor of Obama so much as for defeating Romney by raising the specter of an unbridled plutocracy with lower taxes on the rich, higher taxes on everyone else and a shrunken social safety net. (Romney gave them plenty of rope on this, but still.) Democrats now have a delicate balancing act—they must keep hammering away at Romney, getting more and more daylight between them and him in the polls, and still convince those now-cynical Obama fans of 2008 to haul themselves out to the polls one more time.

Voter Disenfranchisement

Perhaps you recall Florida in 2000? While George W. Bush “won” the state by 537 votes, 12,000 residents were kept off the rolls by mistake, it was later revealed.

That problem has only gotten worse in the decade since. The last two years in particular have seen an unprecedented effort on the part of the GOP to pare voter rolls, including new voter-ID laws in New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, and efforts to restrict early voting in Ohio and Pennsylvania. There remains some dispute about how much the voter-ID laws will end up affecting vote totals, since political pros say that many without proper ID are unlikely to try to vote anyway, but the shortening of early-voting hours could be devastating for Democrats in particular. In 2008, “Souls to Polls” programs sent many mostly African-American voters to polling stations and helped Obama pad his lead in several key states. Pollsters have been unable to put a number on exactly how many likely voters will be dissuaded from voting, but the pressure now is on the Obama field team to overcome whatever obstacles prevent them from getting to the polls.

The Money

In the post–Citizens United world, money remains the great X factor. Conservative super PACS have raised hundreds of millions of dollars this year—outraising Obama for months until August—but so far, the benefit of that advantage has not been clear. Still, there remain in right-wing circles many, many very, very rich people, and they could swamp the Democrats in the remaining days of the election with a blitz of negative advertising. Because these super PACs aren’t tied to the campaign, they aren’t tied to the usual limits of political propriety. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s drug history—any kind of mud could be thrown.

“The Koch brothers were ranked fourth and fifth in the Forbes list of richest Americans,” Tad Devine said. “They given hundreds of millions of dollars already, but let’s say one of these guys decides to belly up to the bar if Romney does well in the debates. All of a sudden you are looking at a different map.”