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Ominous Signs For Obama In 2012

President Barack Obama makes a statement to reporters about the suspicious packages found on U.S. bound planes, Friday, Oct. 29, 2010, in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Updated 3 p.m. ET

Barack Obama captured the White House in 2008 on the strength of his personal magnetism, optimism that he could lift a sinking economy, an energized party base -- and by winning key battleground states. The results of the 2010 midterm elections revealed considerable erosion in these assets, which proved so vital to his winning coalition.

National Exit Poll
Full Election Results

Unless Mr. Obama can reverse these trends then he will become the fourth incumbent president to lose in the last four decades, following the path of Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H. W. Bush in 1992.

Falling Popularity

One week after Mr. Obama took office, the non-partisan Gallup Poll found 66 percent of Americans approved of him, including 88 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of independents. Even 38 percent of Republicans gave him positive evaluations.

The 2010 exit polls showed that support for the president has fallen considerably from this high water mark. Overall, 45 percent of midterm voters approve of the way Mr. Obama is handling his job as president. Only 40 percent of independent voters and 10 percent of Republican voters give the president positive approval ratings. Support among Democrats is 84 percent.

Obama will have to substantially improve his approval rating, and quickly, if he expects to win again in 2012. Of the nine presidents who have sought re-election since Gallup began measuring presidential approval in forties, five of them had approval ratings below 50 percent after their first two years in office. However, none of the nine won a second term when less than half of the public approved of their performance twelve months before the general election.

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Growing Skepticism about his Economic Plans

At the time of the 2008 presidential election, the recession was well under way. Unemployment had risen from 4.7 percent in October 2007 to 6.6 percent in October 2008. Election Day found an overwhelming number of voters (93 percent) rating the economy negatively, including 44 percent of the electorate who judged the economy as poor. Worse, a majority of voters (53 percent) thought the economy would not get any better in the next year.

Mr. Obama was the clear choice of voters concerned with the economy. Voters who rated the economy as poor cast 66 percent of their ballots for Mr. Obama. Of those voters who did think economy would get better in the next year, 61 percent voted for Mr. Obama.

Since the president has taken office, though, the economy has not improved. It has instead continued to slide. The most recent unemployment figures show that the unemployment rate at 9.6 percent in September 2010.

Despite the recession commencing well before he took office, the exit polls show that Mr. Obama and the Democrats are now bearing some of the responsibility for the struggling economy. Twenty-three percent of voters believe that Mr. Obama is more to blame for the economic problems in this country than Wall Street bankers or George W. Bush. Sixty-five percent think the Obama Administration's economic stimulus plan has hurt the economy or made no difference.

If history is telling, than the economy will need to improve considerably over the next two years for Mr. Obama to be re-elected. Of the last nine presidents to seek re-election, none succeeded when the unemployment rate was 7.5 percent of greater in September of the year they sought re-election. The September unemployment rate in the year Jimmy Carter lost was 7.5 percent, while it was 7.6 percent for both Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.

An Eroding Base of Support

Obama supporters

Mr. Obama won in 2008 by energizing and exciting the Democratic base. Historically Democratic groups like young people, African Americans, and union members turned out in large numbers. Some commentators went so far as to suggest that it was a realigning election, capable of producing a sustained period of Democratic dominance.

The 2010 midterm elections showed that such judgments were premature as turnout amongst a number of these groups fell considerably. Young people between the ages of 18 and 29 comprised 18 percent of the electorate in 2008, but only 11 percent of the electorate in 2010. Union voters comprised 23 percent of the electorate in 2008, but only 17 percent in 2010. African Americans made up 13 percent of the electorate in 2008, but only 10 percent of the electorate in 2010.

If these groups are not re-energized and head to the polls in 2012, it will likely spell defeat for Obama in his bid for re-election.

Battleground States Swinging Back

Mr. Obama won the 2008 presidential election by converting nine key states from the Republican column to the Democratic column. Majorities in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Indiana, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia voted for Obama after backing George W. Bush four years earlier. If Mr. Obama had not won these states he would have lost to Sen. John McCain 285 to 253 in the Electoral College, rather than winning by a 365 to 173 electoral vote margin.

The 2010 midterm elections show that Mr. Obama has his work cut out for him if he hopes to retain these key states in the 2012 election. Of the House seats that changed from Democrat to Republican, nearly a third flipped in these nine swing states. On the Senate side, Republican candidates won races in Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, and North Carolina by double-digit margins.

There Is Still Hope

Charles Dharapak

Despite these daunting challenges for Mr. Obama, they have been overcome in the not so distant past. Ronald Reagan faced similar circumstances in the 1982 midterm elections, but was able to reverse these trends over the next two years and easily defeat Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential election.

At the 1982 midterm, Mr. Reagan's approval rating was only 43 percent. The unemployment rate hovered over 10 percent. Republican base groups turned out in lower numbers. As a result, the Republicans lost 29 seats in the House, including several in key battleground states such as Florida, California and North Carolina.

By the start of the 1984 general election, the unemployment rate had dropped precipitously to 7.2 percent. Mr. Reagan's approval rating had improved with the economy, reaching 56 percent. The Republican based was energized and Mr. Reagan rolled to a landslide victory in his re-election bid - a win that seemed quite unlikely just two years earlier.

Barack Obama faces a much different political landscape in 2010 than the one encountered by Mr. Reagan in 1984. The structure of the U.S. economy has changed, posing different challenges for job creation. Public officials are far more polarized, making the passage of legislation that much more difficult. Voters also appear more fickle, as evidenced by the degree of turnover in recent elections.

Only time will tell whether Barack Obama can turn the tide like Ronald Reagan -- or be swept away by it like Jimmy Carter. Either way, he is on the clock.

The CBS News exit polls were conducted by Edison Research for the National Election Pool. Results are based on 16,982 voters interviewed either after exiting the polls across the nation or by telephone if they voted early. They have a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points.

Samuel J. Best is an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and the former director of the Center for Survey Research and Analysis. He is the author of numerous books and articles on public opinion and survey methods. He holds a Ph. D. in political science from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
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