Analysis: Obama and Romney, the generic candidates

July 06, 2012|By David Lauter
  • President Obama delivers remarks during a campaign event in Parma, Ohio.
President Obama delivers remarks during a campaign event in Parma, Ohio. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)

What if instead of Mitt Romney versus Barack Obama, the presidential race were No Name Republican versus No Name Democrat?

In his critique of Mitt Romney's campaign, William Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, noted that over the last five elections, Republicans presidential candidates have averaged 44.5% of the popular vote.

A quick check of the statistics shows that over the same period, Democratic presidential candidates have averaged 48.4%. (The remaining 7.1% went to third-party candidates, most notably Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000).

Now take a look at Gallup's tracking poll -- Obama 48%, Romney 44%. In other words, as of this week, the two candidates are each drawing pretty much exactly the vote that the average candidate of his party has drawn over the last two decades. They are, in other words, acting as generics -- representing the massed partisan armies on either side of America's political divide.

That's why the presidential election has moved so little over the last couple of months and why today's jobs number isn't likely to move it much either. In a race in which most voters have made up their minds on a partisan basis, an event has to be fairly dramatic or unexpected to move the needle much. Friday's jobs report was neither.

If the race remains generic, Obama has the upper hand, as Kristol noted. The Democratic coalition, on average, has been slightly larger than the Republican over the last five elections, and the groups on which it is based -- minorities and college-educated whites -- are a growing share of the electorate.

For a candidate who, in 2008, soared above his party's average, the fall to the generic level has to rank as a disappointment for Obama. But given the number of incumbents in wealthy democracies around the globe who have lost their reelection bids in the last two recessionary years, it's probably a status he'd be happy to hold on to.

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