That’s the sound of swing voters swinging away from Obama

Although he remains overwhelmingly popular inside his own party, Obama is losing the independents.

Six months ago, the White House was weighing up an enviable problem: when do you get to start celebrating an economic recovery? The administration's chief economist at the time, Austan Goolsbee, had announced that the US had "turned a very serious corner". The Democratic strategist Paul Begala told me the "hard part" was to cheerlead the "nascent recovery" without appearing out of touch. I wrote a now-ludicrous story casting Barack Obama's dilem­ma as being when and how to declare victory.

That assumption was not limited to Democrats. The Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney warned a private Republican gathering a year ago this month that Obama "will do everything he can to get the economy going back again, and most likely - at least in my view - the economy will be coming back". Romney told Republicans that they would have to make the vaguer case that Obama "has not understood the nature of America".

Obama took office with what looked like enviable timing. Americans had chosen the candidate of change in bad times and, when recovery inevitably took hold, he would get the credit. That was the formula for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. In 1995, Clinton's aides had the same debate Obama's had this winter. They convinced Clinton to declare economic victory, and he helped turn favourable economic numbers into an optimistic national mood.

Numbers game

Economists and politicians will debate why the US recovery flagged this spring. Critics on the right say Obama should have cut regulations and taxes, not passed a new health-care plan. Keynesians to his left say - as they have said for two years - that his "stimulus" was simply too small. That question of blame will be central to next year's presidential campaign.

Reagan and Clinton were both years in to real booms when public perception caught up with economic reality. Obama's aides like to note that poll numbers for every president of modern times have dipped below 40 per cent - as Obama's did last month for the first time in Gallup's survey. But neither Reagan nor Clinton had ratings this bad this close to an election.

So, Obama's supporters and foes alike have begun to contemplate something that has no place in the triumphal arc on which he seemed set when elected: Obama could well lose next time. The president's odds of re-election on the political gambling site Intrade were exactly even last weekend. And the online traders aren't the only ones gambling.

The sense of weakness has begun to ripple outward. For instance, Israeli and Palestinian leaders alike are acting as if there won't be another Obama term, rebuffing the most powerful man in the world without evident regret.

Obama ran for office and won it as the candidate of history and change - and that candidate never loses. For that reason, it may have taken unusually long for his lengthening odds for 2012 to sink in. The White House still projects political confidence and leading Democrats continue to stand with Obama publicly, but privately they are beginning to worry.

Although he remains overwhelmingly popular inside his own party, it's the independents he's losing. An unexpectedly tight congressional election in liberal New York City is the latest bad sign: the voters, unhappy with Obama, are taking it out on his allies.

One recent weekend in New Hampshire, it was easy to see the path to an Obama defeat. He won the state by 10 percentage points in 2008. Now a series of statewide polls shows him trailing Romney - who has established his residence at a local vacation home. Romney may not survive the arrival of the staunchly conservative Rick Perry in the Republican primary, but Perry's entry into the race has, paradoxically, liberated the moderate former governor of Massachusetts to follow a more centrist path. At a sparsely attended Tea Party rally at a park in Concord, New Hampshire, Romney didn't let the words "Tea Party" pass his lips, and he hasn't offered the conservative grass roots any especially juicy red meat.

The next morning, Romney found his core supporters - more than 400 of them, an excellent turnout in the small-scale politics of the state - at a Manchester country club. They included people such as Susan Greeley. (Her husband is a distant cousin of the newspaper editor Horace Greeley, who said: "Go west, young man.") She voted for Obama in 2008, but will vote for Romney in 2012 if he is the Republican nominee. He is, she said, "balanced" and "level-headed". "I want somebody who's in the centre who can pull people together from both sides," said another Romney backer, Bill Gordon. "We'll tear this country apart if we swing all the way the other way."

Centre ground

These are the voices of swing voters swinging away from the president. And they aren't people who hate Obama - indeed, surveys show that more than 70 per cent of Americans like him, though only about half that number think he's doing a good job. While Perry projects the Tea Party's loathing - the president, he said recently, appears to be an "abject liar" - Romney has calibrated his pitch to the centre, where elections are decided. He speaks of Obama in tones of pity, as a man out of his depth. The president, Romney said in the Republicans' California debate on 7 September, is "a nice guy" who "doesn't have a clue how to get this country working again".

That's a powerful pitch to suburban working women like Greeley, who make up a vital bloc of swing votes and who may not warm as quickly to Perry's more sharply conservative views. It's a symptom of Obama's plight that his shot at a second term may turn on the decisions of Republican primary voters - yet another development over which he has almost no control.

Ben Smith writes for politico.com

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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