Obama vs. Romney: It’s Up for Grabs

Obama can win, but he has a much narrower margin for error in 2012 than in 2008. Douglas Schoen and Jessica Tarlov explain.

AP Photo (2)

Barack Obama won a comfortable victory in 2008, with an 8-point advantage over John McCain. Today things are drastically different. Recent polls suggest a virtual tie between Obama and Romney—which means that, in all likelihood, this election is going to be extremely close.

One way to look at how much Obama’s margin for error has narrowed over the past four years is to consider just how much ground he’s lost among some key subgroups. Consider the following shifts:

Young People: Obama carried 18- to 29-year-olds in 2008 by an overwhelming margin of 66–32, according to exit polls. A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll gives him a 56–37 percent lead among these voters—considerably down from 2008.

Independents: Obama is losing ground with independents, a key group that catapulted him to victory in 2008 with 52 percent support. In a July ABC/Washington Post poll, only 39 percent of Independents supported Obama, compared with 53 percent for Romney.

Hispanics: Obama is also losing some ground with Hispanic voters, according to a July Quinnipiac poll. In 2008 he won the Hispanic vote by a margin of 67–31. Now his margin is 59–30.

Seniors: Obama currently faces an 8-point deficit among seniors. That’s the same deficit he had against McCain on Election Day in 2008. But there’s one key difference: Obama lost seniors to McCain by 45–53; today, he trails Romney 41–49. Anytime an incumbent drops to around 40 or 41 percent with a specific group, it’s a safe assumption that the majority of that group’s undecided voters will break for the challenger. So there is great risk that Obama’s numbers among seniors will, in the end, be worse than they were in 2008.

Women: This category appears basically stable. Obama won women voters by 56–43 in 2008, and he currently leads 53–39, according to an August Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Still, given the negative attention Republicans have been getting surrounding women’s issues over the past year, Democrats are surely disappointed that this margin has barely changed since 2008.

Florida: It’s worth looking specifically at Florida, which could end up deciding the election, and where Obama looks somewhat weaker than he did in 2008. Obama won the state by 2.8 points in 2008; according to a recent PPP poll, his lead there is now 48–47, down from a 4-point lead in June. This is due to a sea change among independents, who supported Obama by 9 points in June and are now leaning toward Romney by 7 points. In a crucial swing state, Obama can ill afford these developments.

Democrats. Obama is also suffering from a lack of enthusiasm among Democrats. A Gallup poll from July finds that only 39 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are enthusiastic about voting in November, down from 45 percent in February. Enthusiasm from Republicans or Republican-leaning independents was also down, but only 2 percentage points, from 53 percent to 51 percent.

One important caveat to all this depressing news for Obama: since 2008 there have been demographic shifts in the electorate that should work in his favor. The minority vote is increasing—from 17 percent in 1996 to 23 percent in 2004 to a record high of 26 percent in 2008. If a particular group—say, Hispanics—sees their share of the electorate rise in 2012, it is possible that Obama could win a lower percentage of the group than in 2008 but still enjoy a bigger net benefit from the group.

Still, notwithstanding the fact that the demographics are shifting in Obama’s favor, his slippages among key groups indicate that this election is going to be close. Even if this week’s convention goes perfectly according to plan and Obama receives a slight bump in his numbers, he has a tough road ahead of him.