Politics

Why the Odds Favor Another Term for Obama

Romney can win, but voter perceptions about the economy leave a difficult path.

As Election Day nears, the road ahead is rough and rocky for Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, with many obstacles standing between him and victory.

President Obama is no shoo-in, for sure. An economic hiccup could unsettle voters and give them reason to take another look at Romney. Or Obama’s team could make a monumental blunder.

For now, though, the odds tilt in Obama’s favor, as they have throughout much of the year. His lead over the former Massachusetts governor in national polls is a small one. But in the state-by-state fight for electoral votes -- the political equivalent of hand-to-hand warfare -- Obama has a bigger lead. In fact, it may be insurmountable if Romney and his team don’t find the reset button.

In many ways, this should be the GOP’s year. Obama’s job rating is tepid. The U.S. economy is sluggish, recovering from the deep recession in fits and starts. The president’s health care law remains a lightning rod for criticism, even after being upheld by the Supreme Court. And the federal deficit keeps growing on his watch.

So why isn’t the economy sinking Obama, lumping him in with the last three incumbents unceremoniously fired by American voters: Republican Gerald Ford in 1976, Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Republican George H.W. Bush in 1992?

First, perceptions trump reality, and some voters sense things are improving. Others remember that just a few years ago, in the teeth of the recession, things were worse. On top of that, Romney hasn’t been able to sell the idea that Obama bears sole blame for stubbornly high jobless rates -- still above 8% -- slow growth and an even more plodding housing recovery.

And, through thick and thin, more than half of voters find Obama likable.

The past isn’t always prologue, but here’s one troubling footnote for Romney and for voters who want to see him win:

The last three challengers who ousted sitting presidents were solidly ahead at this stage of the race, just before the out-of-power party held its nominating convention. Carter was far ahead of Ford in 1976, while Ronald Reagan was in front of Carter (1980) and Clinton led Bush (1992), each by more than the margin of error in polls. That meant the incumbents were on the defensive as the conventions started.

Romney will close the gap. He’ll get a bit of a bounce before and immediately after the GOP convention, which takes place next week in Tampa, Fla. But he’ll give back some, if not all, of the gains when Democrats convene the following week in Charlotte, N.C.

The wild card in this year’s race is Romney’s decision to pick Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate.

It’s a bold, risky choice that can backfire. But Romney needed to roll the dice. Ryan will certainly fire up the tea party and other Republican conservatives, but he’ll lose the support of some older voters because of his open discussions about the need to change Medicare and his past comments about Social Security reforms to help curb government spending.

It doesn’t matter that Ryan’s proposed changes wouldn’t apply to those already enrolled in Medicare or close to retirement age. Ads from Obama and his backers will scare them anyway. Democrats will also try to sour independents on Ryan. This is important because Romney can’t win the necessary 270 electoral votes without some help from non-Republicans, no matter how much Ryan’s spot on the ticket fires up the base.

Older voters in Florida are the key. If Ryan hurts Romney in Florida, the race is over. An incumbent will win again.

Senior Associate Editor Richard Sammon and Associate Editor Kenneth R. Bazinet contributed to this report.

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