The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Drezner Predicts Close Election, Defends Poli Sci

Barack Obama has always been popular around the world. But while the president’s support at home has ebbed considerably since the heady days of November 2008, he is still well-regarded abroad, as Dan Drezner discovered after giving a speech to a group of international institutional investors about the state of play in this year’s election.

Drezner encountered a surprising confidence among the investors that Obama will cruise to re-election. As Drezner notes, it was not as if the crowd of high net worth finance types was unfavorably disposed towards Mitt Romney; OWS this was not.

To explain this phenomenon, Drezner writes that when foreigners look at America under Obama they see a generally well-handled foreign policy (certainly one less abrasive than his predecessor) and an economy that, while growing tepidly, is still performing well compared to most developed countries.

In a letter addressed to “The Rest of the World”, Drezner makes the salient point that, well, none of this matters:

Take a look at these poll numbers about priorities for the 2012 presidential campaign, and try to find anything to do with international relations. There ain’t much. It’s almost all about the domestic economy.

See, most Americans don’t compare the U.S. to other major economies — they compare the U.S. now to, say, the U.S. of 2005. And things don’t look so hot based on that comparison.

Two of the last three presidential elections have been painfully close. Obama’s runaway 2008 victory can in large part be attributed to the widespread disdain of the Republican Party after eight years of George W. Bush, who left office as one of the most unpopular presidents ever.

Having said that, Obama does have a large cushion; he can afford to lose several states he won in 2008 and still win re-election. Nor should the benefits of incumbency be underestimated. The president can also rely upon a slick, battle-hardened campaign operation that has had much more time to prepare than has Team Romney.

But Mitt Romney will be a formidable challenger. Having sewn up the Republican nomination Romney has put the primary behind him and begun to make the traditional march towards the center. And unlike 2008 the Republicans will have enough financial firepower to match, if not exceed, their opposition.

Like Drezner, Via Meadia isn’t saying Romney is going to win. And at the moment at least, Via Meadia hasn’t decided whether as a matter of policy this site will endorse any presidential candidate, much less thought about which one we’d endorse. But the assumption that Romney is a long-shot outsider beggars belief. Drezner puts the odds of a Romney win at 50/50, and asks at the end of his post, ‘Am I missing anything?’

We don’t think he is.

Drezner has also been active lately defending the subject of political science from its detractors in Congress and the New York Times. At Via Meadia we are much more confident that smart and creative political scientists (and certainly Drezner) produce interesting work than we are that the discipline as a whole is likely to make the world a much better place. We sometimes wonder what the US Constitution would look like if it had been written by “qualified” political scientists with Ph.Ds and a solid body of peer reviewed published work behind them. We think it would probably stink in comparison with the current version — but that may just show how shortsighted we are.

But whether the good Dr. Drezner is using his formal training in political science or his informed intuition and sound common sense to make his analysis of the presidential election, he’s right. President Obama has been up a bit lately in the polls, but it’s still a very long road to November.

Published on June 30, 2012 10:06 am
  • Anthony

    270 electoral votes minimally…. Who gets there electorally and by what path is the long road to November.

    WRM, your implication of difference between government as reported by political scientist and government as it actually takes place brings to mind the learned descriptions of “amour” and “amour” itself – the difference is far greater than that between description in general and phenomena in general, between symbol and act.

  • ms

    Earning a PhD gives a person knowledge, usually or a rather narrow sort, not wisdom. This is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive, but in framing a constitution, wisdom is by far the more salient commodity.

  • Susan

    These days, the only thing earning a PHD gives is the ability for Intellectual-Inbreds to engage in the luxury of hanging on the wall a $300,000 piece of paper containing the words “I Smarter than You”

    Of what value is Wisdom when you can have Arrogance.

  • Jim.

    Close? The Supreme Court has just given Romney ammunition to carpet-bomb swing states with the message, “ObamaCare has imposed the biggest, most regressive tax hike in US history on every young person in this country”.

    Doctor, Professor, that’s what you missed.

  • http://thepencilofnature.net Lorenz Gude

    @Jim 4True, The decision makes Romney’s position more compelling if you don’ like the law. But it adds urgency to Obama’s message too. He can argue that the only way for the country to preserve the progress with healthcare he has made to to make sure they reelect him. Now that the court has punted, it makes it an all or nothing election on the health care bill.

  • vanderleun

    “Via Meadia hasn’t decided whether as a matter of policy this site will endorse any presidential candidate…”

    How great a percentage is there in endorsing? Somewhere between zero and none.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @vanderleun: I can’t imagine that many people vote for president based on a blog or newspaper endorsement, and many will think an endorsement implies that you will deliberately bias your coverage to help your favored candidate win. ON the other hand, if you don’t endorse, some readers will assume that you are trying to conceal your bias. At the moment, I’m leaning toward silence.

  • Corlyss

    “* * * he is still well-regarded abroad,* * * ”

    Naturally. Obama’s the world’s favorite kind of American: supine, adoring of their cultures and opinions while contemptuous of his own, fangless, caught up in a fictitious narrative that they are every bit as important as the US is, and eager to allow them to vote in American elections.

  • Corlyss

    WRM -

    Don’t endorse anyone. It only fosters the false notion that endorsements by celebrities mean anything to anyone beyond the endorser and the endorsed. Personally, I’ve never voted for a candidated just because X, Y, or Z endorses that candidate. It’s not a patient referral from one doctor to another. There’s nothing an endorsement can do for me that I can’t do for myself.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Corlyss: A good point, and another reason not to endorse.

  • Eric from Texas

    WRM,

    I also agree. Don’t endorse. Frankly, your opinions are too learned and pragmatic for the Dems and too nuanced for the Reps. I speak as a confirmed Rep.

    I don’t see this election as make or break for Obamacare. We’re hurtling towards a decentralized, knowledge-intenstive world that will be far warmer to libertarian or federalist policies than the mid-20th century progressive outlook on which Obamacare is based.

    As much as I wanted the SC to overturn Obamacre, perhaps CJ Roberts made the right call. I think the complications and realities of health care will cause policy to evolve into something that can’t be recognized now. Just wish it would not be as convulted and painful as it appears it will be.

  • thibaud

    If Team Obama plays the ACA issue right, and if unemployment doesn’t get worse before November, then Obama will win.

    Playing it right means emphasizing, again and again for those middle-aged, economically-strapped swing voters who haven’t been paying attention, that if the GOP wins, they will allow the insurance industry to use its power to deny insurance to anyone they deem as having a “pre-existing condition.”

    Romney himself has said that he thinks people with “pre-existing conditions” – ie, more than half the over-50 population – are scammers. When Team Obama plays this reel again in November, you can bet that 100,000 or so over-50, under-65 voters in the battleground counties of the battleground states will turn out and vote against the for-profit health insurance mafia and their GOP tool.

    As for the Roberts-has-enraged-the-GOP-base argument:

    Despite the partisan spin from Peggy Noonan et al, Romney’s in a terrible bind re healthcare. ObamaCare is RomneyCare. So Romney can’t attack the former while defending the latter without looking foolish.

    Ditto for all the blather about that evil, tyrannical “mandate.” Romney would have to make the case that this wicked and soul-destroying desecration of American liberties is somehow, at the state level, benign and harmless. Now THAT would be fun to watch.

    Assuming Romney’s not going to further reinforce his image as an unreliable, flip-flopping chameleon, then his only choice re. playing the ACA will be to channel Emily Litella.

    This will be fun to watch. Bring it on.

  • Soul

    After the healthcare ruing, I’m now guessing the opposite of how Intrade traders bet! Should be a close election, with several outside factors playing a part in the election.

  • thibaud

    Jim #4 – I see your young healthy voters and raise you with our middle-aged voters with “pre-existing conditions.”

    Our voters actually VOTE, at 2x the turnout rates of yours.

    The ACA – if focused on the Romney’s gross hypocrisy and his foolish and callous dismissal of millions of Americans with “re-existing conditions” – will put Obama over the top in November.

    God bless John Roberts!

  • thibaud

    #13 Soul – Intrade is a joke. Feedback loops + a libertarian tilt => the un-wisdom of the crowd.

    It was obvious to many smart people on the center-left, ie the New Republic’s readers and many of its authors, that Roberts’ concern for his legacy and for the integrity of the institution he leads would never allow him to scrap the ACA, and that an easy and logical solution would be to refer to Congress’s taxing authority.

    The labeling of this as a mandate is irrelevant. As a TNR poster observed, this one was open and shut. Constitutionality doesn’t depend on labels.

    The people who couldn’t see this one coming are those on the right who fetishize tax cuts and the nervous nellies on the left who didn’t pay attention to Roberts’ statements to Jeffrey Rosen of TNR and others about his earnest desire to avoid a politicized, hence weakened and potentially delegitimized, Roberts Court.

  • Jim.

    @WRM-

    Refraining from endorsing? How very moderate. How very middle-of-the-road. And you can go back in the basket with the rest of the bunnies. ;)

    @thibaud-

    Union members go out and voted too. God bless Scott Walker. :)

  • Kris

    If the candidate you’d endorsed had lost, I would have mocked you for it for the next four years. If the candidate you’d endorsed had won, I would have blamed you for every single thing that went wrong during the next four years.

    And now you tell me that you might not endorse? Why would you deprive us of life’s little pleasures?
    :-)

  • thibaud

    Jim – Keep dreaming. If you haven’t noticed, your anti-ACA candidate in this election is the guy who actually implemented ObamaCare, mandate and all, while in office. It’s as if Scott Walker had instituted collective bargaining and generous public pensions to Wisconsin.

    And of course, the ACA with all its flaws is an honest attempt to reform a broken system, which is why, once upon a time, the Heritage Foundation and the GOP championed the mandate in the first place.

    Unless, of course, the whole thing was just a cynical (and ultimately foolish) ruse, like signing a non-agression pact just before you invade with millions of troops. I know what Occam would say.

    Jim, your side wanted a mandate, and now you have it.
    The least you can do is say thanks.

  • http://wwrtc.blogspot.com Art Deco

    It does not seem to have occurred to Dr. Drezner’s audience that the President’s initial margin (pace Dr. Mead, a modest one) was derived from three factors which will not obtain in 2012: the dissipation of public patience which has attended all two-term administrations in the post-war period, the exceptionally prevalent alienation of the public from the incumbent administration, and having a banking crisis erupt smack in the middle of the campaign. It also does not appear to have occurred to them that annual public sector borrowing in this country exceeds in its relative dimensions that of all but two occidental countries and that the President is so insouciant about that that he has proposed a trio of budgets rejected or ignored almost unanimously in Congress. It does not occur to them as noted that people here make their decisions on the basis of American economic metrics, not Spanish economic metrics. It does not occur to them that George W. Bush’s sensibility may not bother people in Tennessee the way it bothers people in Berlin. Just what is the wisdom of the global 1% anyway?

    And what is Dr. Drezner’s wisdom worth? Re-election is not guaranteed. Read some of the descriptive statistics issued by Gallup. The severity of the degree to which the President has alienated the public is not without precedent, but the durability of that alienation is. If he is returned to office it will be something quite novel (given the frame of the post-war period). Drezner seems to think it a good wager absent some sort of catastrophe. It is not.

    While we are on the subject, someone ought to tell Dr. Drezner that neither natural scientists nor social researchers have a claim on public funds to serve their personal or professional interests, nor is it all that credible that some sort of central co-ordinating body serves a social purpose in the realm of academic and technical research any more than it would in the realm of investments in manufacturing. If the foundations will not fund his research, he can attempt to hit up the Massachusetts legislature. Leave the rest of us out of it.

  • http://wwrtc.blogspot.com Art Deco

    thibaud, take a pill.

  • thibaud

    Art – [pointless needling of another commenter deleted in the interests of a more civil atmosphere on the site].

    “The severity of the degree to which the President has alienated the public is not without precedent, but the durability of that alienation is.”

    Read Charlie Cook, and get acquainted with reality. Obama’s job-approval ratings are HIGHER than those of ANY of the last five presidents, including Reagan.

    Here’s Charlie Cook:
    http://nationaljournal.com/columns/cook-report/the-cook-report-skip-electoral-college-math-20120628

    “Notwithstanding the almost daily e-mails that I get protesting that the election will be a slam dunk for either Obama or Romney, this race will be close. Obama has a high floor, meaning that he has a fervent base of support. He also has a low ceiling, meaning that he has large and adamant opposition.

    “[Obama's] high floor [of support] has prevented him from descending to the depths of low job-approval ratings that afflicted many of his predecessors. Obama’s lowest Gallup job-approval rating was 40 percent, compared with George W. Bush’s low point of 28 percent; Jimmy Carter’s 29 percent; George H.W. Bush’s 32 percent; Ronald Reagan’s 37 percent; and Bill Clinton’s 37 percent….”

  • http://wwrtc.blogspot.com Art Deco

    Read Charlie Cook, and get acquainted with reality. Obama’s job-approval ratings are HIGHER than those of ANY of the last five presidents, including Reagan.

    You are confused. You need to look at the history of a President’s job approval at the time he actually stood for re-election, not the means recorded throughout the President’s full complement of years. Only Gen. Eisenhower had consistently good marks from the electorate.

    Messrs. Truman, Johnson, Carter, Bush I, and Bush II suffered a secular trend of declining approval throughout their years in office. The degree to which Johnson and the younger Bush irritated the public was not particularly advanced when they stood for re-election, Johnson in particular; in the fall of 1964, he was agreeably regarded by about 70% of the public. Truman and Bush I had much more volatile ratings from the public than Obama has had and Truman benefited from an abrupt about face in public opinion that began in the middle of 1948 (at a time when the economy was growing at a rate exceeding 4% per annum); I do not see that happening this year.

    Messrs. Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton had contextually long alternating periods of advance and retreat in public regard. All four had periods of recovery in public opinion that were underway for nearly two years before they had to face the electorate. Nixon and Reagan had agreeable approval ratings (~60%) and Clinton’s were at least satisfactory (50-55%) at the time they were returned to office. Nixon had an additional advantage that no other incumbent in the last 70 years has had: an opponent who was an exceedingly decent man who blew up every public relations mine there was. Clinton was aided by the presence of a 3d party candidate shearing off some of the opposition’s vote.

    Obama has improved his position over the last seven months, but he is still underwater, and, as Drezner points out, has to depend on several incoming shells being duds. Ross Perot is not running, Ron Paul is not running, and Mitt Romney is not given to defoliating tactlessness a-la-Barry Goldwater.

    We are looking at a handful of case studies, so we could all be surprised. I recall twelve years ago a committee of political scientist produced a statistical model which predicted (based on economic metrics) that Albert Gore would be voted into office with 60% of the vote (something that has happened only once in the history of popular balloting). Back to the drawing board.

    And there is not much point in being all that vehement in one’s forecasts. Large and impersonal social forces are remarkably indifferent to what each of us wants.

  • thibaud

    Maybe you’re right.

  • http://articletrust.com/it-is-possible-to-proper-way-to-do-a-license-plate-lookup/ Caren Dudney

    Listen! This was purportedlyPresident Obama’s goal before to the last election. Is there any evidence of any progress as far as sustainable energy goes?