The 2012 Elections: Time for a Change?

Among political truisms, few are more trusted than this one: presidents do not get reelected when the economy is weak and unemployment is high. However, warns public opinion pollster Gary Langer of Langer Research Associates, anything may be possible in 2012.

The economic outlook was clearly weighing against President Barack Obama’s reelection hopes as 2011 drew to a close. The nation’s gross domestic product was expanding at a sluggish pace, and unemployment remained near 9 percent more than two years after the official end of the last recession. By some measures, the unemployment situation was even worse than it appeared, Langer told participants at the SVIA Fall Forum in October. Factoring in discouraged workers who had settled for part-time jobs, for example, one in six Americans weren’t able to get the kind of work they wanted, making this the worst labor market since the Great Depression.

Not surprisingly, Langer said, more than 70 percent of Americans saw the country as being on the wrong track. The last three times this occurred within a year of a presidential election, the incumbent president lost.

Despite those negatives, Langer noted, the president in mid-November still had a 44 percent job-approval rating. That’s not a level that’s typically associated with reelection, but it was nonetheless surprisingly high under the circumstances. The president even had a 35 percent approval rating on his handling of the economy, Langer said, which was better than former presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush scored at their lows: 22 percent, 33 percent, and 31 percent, respectively.

One reason for Obama’s relatively strong approval ratings, Langer said, is that President Obama maintains a strong hold on his core supporters. In one recent poll, 80 percent of Democratic voters said they will stick with the president in 2012. By contrast, only 59 percent of Republican voters said they were satisfied with their party’s candidates, although that wasn’t terribly surprising during a primary battle in which party loyalties are divided among multiple candidates.

Langer did not hazard any guesses as to who would win the Republican nomination, but he did note that three of the four leading contenders at that time—Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, and Rick Perry—all had higher unfavorable than favorable ratings outside of their own party.

By contrast, Langer noted, ratings for Obama and Romney were about evenly split between favorable and unfavorable when prospective voters were asked to rate them as potential head-to-head candidates in the 2012 presidential election.

Once the Republicans have picked a candidate, Langer said, the outcome of the 2012 presidential election will hinge on independent voters, who are a bigger part of the voting population than they have been in the past. “For the first time for a sustained period, and for far longer than we’ve seen in the past—for more than two years now—the number of people who identify themselves as independents outnumbers both Democrats and Republicans,” Langer said. “That is a departure from the traditional political allegiances we’ve seen in the past.”

Recognizing the new importance of independent voters, Langer said, will be essential to understanding the current election. “You are seeing to some extent a rejection of both political parties as we see the public struggling to find solutions to the problems we face,” he said. “In a country that looks like this, anything is possible.”