Obama at Majority Disapproval; Re-election Likely

51.5 percent of Americans disapprove of President Obama's job performance. It's still his race to lose.

President Obama’s job approval is now at 43.6 percent with with a 51.5 percent majority disapproving, according to the RealClearPolitics aggregate. He’s worst in the controversial Rasmussen poll (55% disapproval) but doing quite badly at Gallup (50), ABC/WaPo (53), and Politico/GWU/Battleground (50).

These same polls say a generic Republican would beat Obama if the election were held today–but he’d win by a nose against Mitt Romney or Rick Perry and thump Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin. Granted, as Jon Huntsman’s 14 point loss in a hypothetical head-to-head shows, some of this is a function of name recognition. But it continues to demonstrate that, however unhappy voters are with the direction of the country under Obama’s leadership, they’re not yet sold on any of the Republican challengers.

Ultimately, though, such analysis–while it dominates the early discussion–totally misapprehends the nature of the American political system. At the end of the day, the view of “Americans” about Obama and his prospective challengers matters only at the margins.

As Larry Sabato points out in a non-paywalled WSJ column, “The 2012 Election Will Come Down to Seven States.”

Voting is predictable for well over half the states, so even 14 months out it’s easy to shade in most of the map for November 2012.

Barring a Carter-like collapse, President Obama is assured of 175 electoral votes from 12 deep-blue states and the District of Columbia: California (55 electoral votes), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), New Jersey (14), New York (29), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington state (12) and Washington, D.C. (3). Three more states are not quite as certain, but still likely Democratic: Maine (4), Minnesota (10) and Oregon (7). Even though Minnesota is competitive enough to vote Republican under the right set of conditions, it is the state with the longest Democratic presidential streak, dating to 1976.

Four other states usually vote Democratic for president, but they’re hardly a sure thing: Michigan (16), New Mexico (5), Pennsylvania (20) and Wisconsin (10). A low Hispanic vote in 2012 could flip New Mexico, as Al Gore carried it by only 366 votes in 2000 and a dedicated effort by George W. Bush flipped it in 2004. In Michigan, economic problems might cause voters to cool on Democrats. Wisconsin, narrowly Democratic in 2000 and 2004, is a cauldron of unpredictable countertrends. And although Pennsylvania has frustrated all GOP attempts to win it over since 1988, recent polls have shown weakness for Mr. Obama there. These 51 electoral votes will be GOP targets if conditions in the fall of 2012 approximate today’s.

Meanwhile, the Republicans have their own firewall. Almost any sentient GOP nominee will carry Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Arkansas (6), Idaho (4), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Mississippi (6), Montana (3), Nebraska (5), North Dakota (3), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (9), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), Utah (6), West Virginia (5) and Wyoming (3). These 18 states have 105 electoral votes.

The Obama forces have bravely boasted that they can turn Arizona (11), Georgia (16) and Texas (38), mainly because of growing Latino voting power. But with the economy in the tank, electoral claims on these big three will likely go the way of John McCain’s early declaration in ’08 that California was within his grasp. Count another 65 red votes here.

Four years ago, even optimistic Democrats didn’t think they would pick up Indiana (11), North Carolina (15), or an electoral vote in Nebraska (which like Maine awards one vote per congressional district), yet all three went for Mr. Obama by small margins. In 2012, Indiana is likely to desert him, as is the one Cornhusker district. To keep North Carolina, the Democrats chose Charlotte for their national convention and will make a big play statewide. As of now, it looks tough for them. Thus Republicans are in the lead to win 26 more electors. Missouri was the sole squeaker that went for McCain; few believe it will be tight next year, so the GOP will likely have those 10 votes, too.

Republicans therefore are a lock or lead in 24 states for 206 electoral votes, and Democrats have or lead in 19 states for 247 electoral votes.

Yes, there are a few Ifs and shading there. But Sabato’s right: Barring something really remarkable happening, very few states are in play. The 2008 cycle was something of a perfect storm for Democrats, with the economy going into the tank months before the election and a grossly unpopular Republican president at the helm. Sabato may be off by a state or two, but the gist of the analysis above is dead on.

That’s why seven super-swing states with 85 electors will determine which party gets to the magic number of 270 electoral votes: Colorado (9), Florida (29), Iowa (6), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), Ohio (18) and Virginia (13).

None of this is super shocking to those who have been paying attention the last three cycles. Florida was the only state that mattered in 2000 and Ohio held the same position in 2004. 2008 was something of a landslide for Obama; barring the Republicans nominating a Palin-Bachmann ticket, that won’t be the case this go-round.

As has been the case since 1992, the three biggest states–California, Texas, and New York–don’t factor into presidential contests. Republicans in California and New York and Democrats in Texas are for all intent and purposes non-voters. Candidates will swing by on fundraising drives but the outcome is not in doubt.  The same is true, in any given cycle, for the residents of most states.

If Sabato’s figuring is right, Obama starts off with 247 electors in the bag. That means he only needs to peel off 23 more to get another four years in the White House. His Republican challenger starts off with 206 and therefore needs 64. Taking the three biggest prizes–Florida, Ohio, and Virginia–would leave the Republican 4 short. Obama, meanwhile, could win Florida, lose all six of the remaining swing states, and still hold on to his job.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, Public Opinion Polls, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. EddieInCA says:

    James –

    As I said in another thread, if Perry is the nominee, Obama wins Florida easily. After all, he’ll be running against a man who has said, on the record “Social Security is un-American” and has said Medicare is unconstitutional.

    I don’t think the many seniors in FL will want to hear that message.

  2. Tsar Nicholas says:

    It’s the stupidity, economy.

    Incidentally, Sabato’s quoted analysis negates the conclusion in your last graf. Sabato puts the bright line numbers at 105 for the GOP nominee and 175 for Obama. Granted, people in Michigan and Pennslyvania might smoke a lot of dimebags, but certainly those states’ respective electoral votes are not “in the bag” for Obama. The Democrats who just last year ran against Messrs. Snyder, Toomey and Corbett would have a hard time believing those two states were “locks” for Obama. Besides have you reviewed the unemployment and underemployment figures for those states? They’re worse than ghastly.

    Also, the fact Sabato doesn’t include Texas, Georgia and Arizona in the “lock” column for the GOP is a prime example of Democrat cognitive dissonance. Obama has about as much of a chance of winning Texas, for example, as the Pope has of being named King of England.

    In any event, while it’s facile and at certain points comically glib Sabato’s overall analysis actually is not too far off the mark. The real bright line states won’t change. The election ultimately will come down to Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

    All this assumes, of course, that Sarah Palin does not run and more specifically that she’s not the GOP nominee; if the latter item turns out to be the opposite then Obama would be a shoe-in for reelection.

  3. EddieInCA says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    Texas Gov. Rick Perry has reportedly been eyeing the race for the Republican presidential nomination — but Texas isn’t eyeing him for president, according to new survey from Public Policy Polling (D).

    Indeed, the poll shows Perry trailing President Obama in heavily Republican Texas, which last voted Democratic for president in 1976, when Jimmy Carter was the South’s favorite son. Obama leads 47%-45%, even though Obama’s net approval rating is underwater at 42%-55%. Of course, this could potentially change if Perry actually became the nominee in a real election, but it’s not a good starting point.

    The poll found Perry’s approval rating at only 43%, with 52% disapproval. In addition, the poll asked simply: “Do you think Rick Perry should run for president next year, or not?” The result was only 33% saying he should run, to 59% saying he should not.

  4. Michael says:

    If this was 1979, you all would be blabbering the same nonsense about Reagan. Obama goes down in flames like Jimmy did, next year. But please keep induging in your fantasies.

  5. MM says:

    @Michael: Argument by assertion, much?

  6. WR says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: @Tsar Nicholas: I don’t think you read this correctly. Sabato is quite clear in saying that while the Obama team has made noises about flipping Texas, he doesn’t think it’s possible. I’m not sure what happened to Georgia in this analysis — it doesn’t seem to be mentioned at all, although maybe I’m missing it, too — but I wouldn’t get too cocky about Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio. It’s true they all turned red in 2010, but this isn’t 2010 anymore, and an awful lot of voters have come to loathe the Republicans who took power then.

  7. EddieInCA says:


    If this was 1979, you all would be blabbering the same nonsense about Reagan. Obama goes down in flames like Jimmy did, next year.

    Hmmm…. 1979.

    No internet message boards like today.
    No blogs like today.
    No instant 24 hour news cycle like today.

    Hmmm…. 1979.

    If it were 1979 and we had the same tools available then that we have today, Reagan wouldn’t have survived his primaries.

    Rush would be calling him a Rino for his immigration stance.
    Grover Norquist would be mobilizing people against him for his raising taxes stance.
    Sean Hannity would be calling him an appeaser for his foreign policy stances.
    And Fox News would be hammering him for his ties to Hollywood Liberals.

    And if I had a spaceship, I could fly.

  8. samwide says:

    Why the hell are we still futzing around with the Electoral College in this age of Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest?

  9. ponce says:

    @Michael: Argument by assertion, much?

    What choice do wingnuts have?

    Not many of them could survive four more years of a black president.

  10. An Interested Party says:

    The saddest and most pathetic point is that even though the economy is so bad, the President still has a better than even chance of winning reelection…that really says a lot about the GOP…

  11. Racehorse says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Michigan will most likely go Republican – NC definitely. Now if the price of gas heads south of $2 a gallon by election day, all bets are off: Obama wins.

  12. ponce says:

    North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Michigan will most likely go Republican – NC definitely.

    With John Kasich’s plummeting approval rating below 30% now and drunken “Christian” Republican legislators getting pulled over left and right with hookers and drugs in their cars, I doubt very much that the people of Ohio will giver the nod to the Republican nominee.

  13. Pete says:

    @ponce: Ponce, as usual, another one of your brilliant observations.

  14. Herb says:

    Republicans in California and New York and Democrats in Texas are for all intent and purposes non-voters.

    True, but so weird…..

    There are more Democrats in Texas (pop. 25 million) than there are in Maine (pop. 1.3 million). There are also more Republicans in California (pop. 37 million) than there are in Nebraska (pop 1.8 million). By a quirk of geography and law, the votes of large constituencies don’t “count,” while the votes of much smaller (less representative?) constituencies do. Like I said, weird….

  15. The factor I can’t get beyond right now is the economy. Even if you take the White House’s own numbers, which are more optimistic than other forecasts, we’re looking at growth under 2% and unemployment averaging 9% through the end of 2012. The last time a President was re-elected under such economic conditions, it was FDR in 1936 and Barack Obama is no FDR (and whoever the GOP nominates will no no Alf Landon).

    If those economic numbers hold up, how does Obama win?

  16. EddieInCA says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Doug –

    You’re using an old paradigm. If the majority of the country blames Bush policies for the current recession, it’s easy for Obama to say “Do you want us to go back to the policies that got us into this mess?”

    Additionally, if the GOP would/could vote a “reasonable” Republican, they’d have a shot with independents. But Perry has advocated that SS and Medicare are unconstitutional. How does Perry win Florida with that message? How does he win Nevada with that message?

    Have you seen what is happening to the Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida governors? If you think Obama’s approval rating is low, you should really look at Scott Walker, John Kasich, and Rick Scott.

    As long as the GOP nominates Perry or Bachman, Obama wins easily. If it’s Romney, it’s a toss-up.

  17. jan says:


    Ponce, as usual, another one of your brilliant observations

    Pete, you left out the adjectives of ‘dramatic, flamboyant, and charged.’

    I don’t think there is a lock on North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, or Michigan for either party. It all depends on the dynamics of the economy.

    While Kasich has taken heat for some of his budget reforms, like Walker in WI, there is time for these new policies to take hold and positively improve the fiscal problems in those states. If this happens these governor’s negatives will turn into positives, and the R’s will have a better chance securing those states for republicans during the GE.

    One thing for sure, unions are going to ride roughshod over R’s in any and all states, as the 2012 election could very well be their Alamo. However, unions, as they are structured today, are doing more harm than good for workers. Their primary function seems to be as an agitator between employer and employee. IMO, they are becoming a fossilized force in this country, loud-mouthing demands, intimidating those around them who don’t agree, and creating more job losses than employment gains. People are beginning to see this, too. The Labor Day comments by Hoffa only exemplified how union bosses have become nothing more than verbal, violent cesspools, whose capabilities have been reduced to nothing more than creating major stinks wherever they go.

  18. jan says:

    Jay Carney playingWashington Kabuki Theatre

  19. PD Shaw says:

    Statistical point: No President elected as a resident of Illinois has ever lost re-election.

  20. michael reynolds says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    If those economic numbers hold up, how does Obama win?

    By Republicans committing suicide. By all rights Obama should lose. I think he’d probably lose against Romney or Huntsman. He’d destroy Palin or Bachmann. And I think he most likely beats Perry.

  21. A voice from another precinct says:

    @jan: While I will agree with you about the problems of unions–they have been absolutely terrible at protecting the working class for about 15 or 20 years (and this comment from a person who has almost always been a union worker)–the 13% of employees who are represented by unions are hardly in a position to “run roughshod” over anyone. That unions have deep pockets is certainly true, and we may be in for a battle of the deep pockets in the next cycle. My money would be that corporate pockets will prove deeper. They always have proven so in the past.

    Vote Corporatist (and vote often).

  22. Racehorse says:

    The Republicans need a candidate who is more Reagan like or Nixon like, and a pragmatist as they were.
    I am not sure either Reagan or Nixon could get nominated in today’s GOP.

  23. jan says:

    @A voice from another precinct:

    Actually union membership has fallen below 12%.

    The ‘roughshod’ comment was referencing more the actions of organized unions than the actual quantity represented in the unions today.

    For instance, the SEIU was very disruptive in the 2010 elections, oftentimes impersonating teas by carrying around offensive signs in their gatherings, which were then attributed to the tea party events, and/or even picking physical confrontations with them. WI teacher’s unions marched on the private Catholic Messmer school, gluing locks when Walker was due to read to the students there. Then you have the battle cry from Hoffa to his membership, injecting hues of violence in their support of Obama. It doesn’t take many people to cast confusion and chaos into an election. And, I think that is what the unions intend to do in the lead-up to the 2012 GE.

    The Unions ‘deep pockets’ are the membership monies that are involuntarily extracted from many who would rather not be a union member. And, whether a worker is a dem or a republican, they have no say in where their dues go and who they politically support. Because of this there has always been an air of coercion in the union organizing that I am glad I was able to escape. I truly believe that even minority members should be able to choose if they want to be in a union or not, just as much as those who want to be in a union should be able to do so, as well.

  24. An Interested Party says:

    Ponce, as usual, another one of your brilliant observations.

    As opposed to Racehorse’s observations? Please…

    However, unions, as they are structured today, are doing more harm than good for workers.

    If you are going to make a claim like that, you need to prove it…

    The Labor Day comments by Hoffa only exemplified how union bosses have become nothing more than verbal, violent cesspools, whose capabilities have been reduced to nothing more than creating major stinks wherever they go.

    Oh, something they have in common with the Tea Party crowd…

  25. jan says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Oh, something they have in common with the Tea Party crowd…

    Where’s your proof?

    Here’s one person’s account of thedifferences between a tea party rally and a left wing rally.

  26. ponce says:

    If those economic numbers hold up, how does Obama win?

    A majority of Americans rightly hold the Republicans responsible for the economy.

  27. anjin-san says:

    Jan! You minx you. You ran off last night without explaining to the class how non manufacturing jobs in the solar industry are not really jobs. I know all the kids were looking forward to hearing a bit more about that.

    Guess linking to far right websites in the name of non partisan discussion is keeping you very busy…

  28. jan says:

    @An Interested Party:

    If you are going to make a claim like that, you need to prove it…

    What unions do: How labor unions affect jobs and the economy

    Lower investment obviously hinders the competitiveness of unionized firms. The Detroit automakers have done so poorly in the recent economic downturn in part because they invested far less than their non-union competitors in researching and developing fuel-efficient vehicles. When the price of gas jumped to $4 a gallon, consumers shifted away from SUVs to hybrids, leaving the Detroit carmakers unable to compete and costing many UAW members their jobs.

    Economists would expect reduced investment, coupled with the intentional effort of the union cartel to reduce employment, to cause unions to reduce jobs in the companies they organize. Economic research shows exactly this: Over the long term, unionized jobs disappear.

    Consider the manufacturing industry. Most Americans take it as fact that manufacturing jobs have decreased over the past 30 years. However, that is not fully accurate. Chart 1 shows manufacturing employment for union and non-union workers. Unionized manufacturing jobs fell by 75 percent between 1977 and 2008. Non-union manufacturing employment increased by 6 percent over that time. In the aggregate, only unionized manufacturing jobs have disappeared from the economy. As a result, collective bargaining coverage fell from 38 percent of manufacturing workers to 12 percent over those years.

    Here is another article referencing union’s negative effect on employment.

    Again, this raises the wages of workers above the market clearing level and creates a situation in which there are more people who want to work at the wage than there are firms who want to hire at the wage. In this way, labor unions increase the wages and benefits of workers who are employed, but may simultaneously increase the number of workers who are unemployed.

  29. jan says:


    ….explaining to the class how non manufacturing jobs in the solar industry are not really jobs.

    …makes absolutely no sense.

    And, for that matter, sometimes the folly of answering some of your sophmoric questions is too tiring and simply of no value, for either you or me.

  30. anjin-san says:

    …makes absolutely no sense.

    Thats kind of the point. You argued there were no green jobs except for engineers because the manufacturing would be done elsewhere. When I pointed out there were any number of non manufacturing, non engineering jobs in the solar industry, you were no where to be seen. Busy searching for more your your “non partisan” far right websites to cut and paste from no doubt.

    sophmoric questions

    Do you really fancy yourself as the adult in the room? I guess having Jay Tea and bithead as fanboys has gone to your head…

  31. jan says:


    When I pointed out there were any number of non manufacturing, non engineering jobs in the solar industry, you were no where to be seen.

    Quite frankly I don’t even know what you’re talking about in your ‘accusation.’ Why you continue to retrospectively nitpick and parse some solar post is something only you know. If it bothers you that much then look up what I wrote, repost it and I will take another look at my words.

    However, as I clearly have stated before, I am a proponent of solar, overtly demonstrating this by having it installed in our own home. But, I also am pragmatic about business start-ups, the financing that is entailed to be successful, as well as how long it will take to substantially be able to create a substitute green energy source powering this country and producing jobs. It’s a general comment…my own opinion, there are plenty of links to back this up, and if you’re interested look it up yourself.

  32. ponce says:

    Why you continue to retrospectively nitpick and parse some solar post is something only you know.

    Haha, boilerplate fringe right weasel attempt.

    They’re asked to prove some moronic comment they made and they say “Why are you still talking about that old post?”

    It’s been a wingnut staple since the internet began.

  33. anjin-san says:



  34. superdestroyer says:

    @An Interested Party:

    All it really says is that the U.S. is becoming a one-party-state where the number of automatic Democratic keeps going up and the number of voters who would ever vote for any conservative party keeps doing down.

    By 2020, the number of states that the Republicans have any chance of winning will be so small that everyone will just admit that the Democratic nominee will be the winner.

  35. Polaris says:


    I think some people are forgetting just how uncharactistically Dem (D+7 the most since 1980) the 2008 electorate was. In a lot of ways the 2008 electorate was an outlier of modern politics. By constrast if we are to believe the leading indicators coming out of Pew and Gallup, the 2012 electorate is likely to be a lot more like the 2010 midterm electorate, i.e. PUSH or D+1 at best (which means a 2004 type electorate).

    As a first order approximation then, deduct 7% off the margin of victory for Obama to reflect the new electorate to reflect the current economic-political conditions, and we get a first order approximation of what the 2012 map should look like. I will go through the important changes below:

    Colorado goes from a solid 9% win to a squeeker with a 2% win for Obama. [In fact Obama likely loses Co because the loss of Obama support has been especially castrophic in the mountain west, but I’m sticking with my first order approximation for now.]

    Florida goes from a 2% win to a 5% loss which means not only does Florida flip, but is on the verge of no longer being considered a swing state at all but a ‘lean republican’ state instead.

    Indiana and North Carolina both flip to ‘lean’ republican states at the very least as does CD2 in Nebraska (Omaha).

    ME-2 goes to a win by 4% making it a potential battleground.

    By this first order model NV stays with Obama at 5% (but see my commentary about Co…Obama’s loss of popularity has been especially brutal in the mountain west).

    Ohio goes from about a 4% win to a 3% loss and PA goes down to only a 3% win. Both states are now definate battlegrounds.

    IA goes down to about a 1% win making it very much a battleground as well.

    VA goes from a 6% win to a 1% loss, and again that’s assuming the first order projection which like the Mountain West States is (per current polling) likely the kindest assumption for Obama. By this model it’s a battleground, but it may go more GOP than this initial model suggests.

    Using 2008 EVs, these first order changes already bring the GOP candidate to 260 already, and with redistricting favoring GOP leaning states almost entirely, it’s probably even more than that.

    Once you get to second order models and start factoring in regional effects on Obama’s popularity (such as in the Mountain West), then Co and Nv look likely to flip and NM is shaky depending on the amount and nature of the hispanic vote in that state.

    The point is that the 2008 election was an outlier election caused by a confluence of events we aren’t likelyto see for another century. Thus I think Doug is basically right. A bad economy is the kiss of death for Obama like it would be for any incumbant president regardless of party.