Why Obama could still lose in November

Worsening jobs figures, Romney's ad blitz and low approval ratings are reasons for Obama not to be complacent.

A somewhat blithe consensus has built up around the view that Mitt Romney is destined to lose the US presidential election. Prediction markets Intrade and Iowa Electronic Markets have the incumbent on 70.3% and 72.4% respectively to win, whilst Nate Silver, a superstar election seer, has Obama a huge 76.1% favourite. But for all the President’s advantages, and they are admittedly formidable, a good deal of uncertainty remains going into the final six weeks of the campaign. Here are three reasons why the race is more unpredictable than most pundits appreciated.

1. The economy, stupid. Long before the Clinton campaign coined that famous maxim, politicos have known that the single most important factor in presidential elections is the state of the economy. Ronald Reagan’s question to the nation in 1980, "do you feel better off than you did four years ago?" was widely thought to have skewered the hapless incumbent Jimmy Carter. Romney is clearly looking for the same tactic to work in 2012. The irony of Carter’s predicament was that in fact about ten million jobs had been created during his presidency – his misfortune was that the recession began in his re-election year, creating the impression of failure at the worst possible time. Obama’s job creation numbers are far worse than Carter’s: the economy has (narrowly) lost jobs since his election and only 4m of the 9m jobs lost in the recession have been recovered. Moreover, no president since Roosevelt has been re-elected with unemployment at more than 7.2% (it is currently 8.1%). But, like Roosevelt, Obama inherited a horrendously underperforming economy and, as with Roosevelt, the economy appears to be improving as his re-election approaches.

The danger for Obama, however, lies in the precariousness of the jobs growth figures. Some point out that the unemployment rate has been flattered by discouraged workers dropping out of the labour market. And the weak jobs growth figures from September – along with the current level of the ISM - have set up a tense end-game for the Obama administration. With two more months of data to come, Obama could be hugely damaged should those figures turn negative in the run-up to polling day.

Chart 1: US unemployment

2. This is the year of the super-PAC The incumbent funding advantage in presidential elections usually works in two ways: firstly the incumbent simply raises more money in most years due to their greater familiarity with donors and the tendency of backers to prefer a proven winner over an insurgent challenger; secondly, they generally avoid the costly battle for their party’s nomination that drains the challenger of cash before the real contest has ever begun. Both these advantages hold this year too (Obama had raised $600m in total to Romney’s $335m by the end of July), but they should be greatly mitigated following 2010’s controversial Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. the FEC. This ruling essentially eliminates the restrictions that existed on individual and corporate donations to "political action committees"; as a result, deep-pocketed donors, of which the Republicans seem to have rather more than the Democrats, will be able to target unlimited ads at the key swing states in the final weeks of the campaign.

The impact of these super-PACs was huge during the Republican primary, with Mitt Romney’s Restore Our Future super-PAC vastly outspending his rivals and destroying big poll leads, like Newt Gingrich’s 20-point lead in Florida, with a deluge of negative ads. Of course, it won't be so easy for Romney to squash President Obama in this manner. For one, he has his own super-PAC, albeit one less well-funded. It also remains unclear whether the Republican super-PACs have raised anything like the kind of funds some were predicting (data going up to 31 July showed a relatively modest $140m between them). But their eventual impact is impossible to predict, which leaves open the possibility they could make a critical difference in the crucial swing states like Florida and Ohio come November.

3. Approval ratings still dangerously low. Obama’s approval ratings are nowhere near high enough at this stage to justify complacency. Most analysts expect the bump he enjoyed following the Democratic Convention to fade by the end of September, which should erode much of the lead that appears to have excited prediction markets. Chart 2 shows the difficulty Obama has had in maintaining his approval ratings at levels comparable to those of the last four Presidents to enjoy re-election in the US.

Chart 2: Presidential approval

My view is not that Romney is more likely to win the Presidency - I don’t think he will. Obama’s approval ratings may be relatively low but they are significantly higher than those of Presidents Carter and Bush at this point in their unsuccessful re-election campaigns. He is also leading to varying degrees in states worth 332 electoral college votes (270 are needed to win). However, once one adjusts the current polls for the convention bounces and allows for the not inconsiderable likelihood of more disappointing economic news between now and the election, Romney’s task is not quite the Herculean labour that many seem to think.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent consultancy based in London.

Barack Obama meets with supporters at OMG Burgers on 20 September in Miami, Florida. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent consultancy based in London.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.