When the unemployment rate topped 9 percent last year, “it was accepted that Obama had virtually no chance to be re-elected,” UGA professor Charles Bullock said.
Now, the national unemployment rate is 8.3 percent and dropping.
If it falls below 8 percent by Labor Day, voters probably will re-elect Obama, Bullock said.
“If people see things are getting better, they’ll give Obama another term,” he said.
Bullock gave the keynote speech Monday at a UGA Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities symposium, a gathering for top undergraduate scholars to present papers. He identified a number of factors that will determine who wins the presidency.
Three out of four presidents who presided over spiking gas prices lost re-election, so high gas prices are a political problem for Obama, Bullock said.
“That’s something you see every day,” he said. “You might not know what the unemployment rate is but, by golly, you know how much gas costs between here and home.”
Obama’s 47 percent approval rating also spells trouble for the president, as is the two-thirds of voters who tell pollsters the country is on the wrong track, he said. Harry Truman was the only president to win re-election with an approval rating below 50 percent, Bullock noted; Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush both lost. But like the unemployment rate, those numbers are improving for Obama, he said.
Enthusiasm is another factor. Like 2008, Obama needs strong support from Latinos, African-Americans and young voters, but Bullock said he doesn’t think the latter two groups will turn out in as large numbers as four years ago.
If the Supreme Court strikes down Obama’s controversial 2009 health care reform law, Democrats could make it a rallying cry, while Republicans will lose a campaign issue, Bullock said. The reverse also is true: If the law is upheld, Republicans will appeal to voters to put them in charge so they can repeal it, he said.
Republican candidates have become less popular as they’ve run to the right during the primary season, Bullock said, which boosts Obama’s chances.
“You have to reach out into that middle ground and pick up some of those independents,” he said.
Although Obama is leading all the Republican candidates in national polls, what really matters is the Electoral College, which favors Democrats, Bullock said. Solidly Democratic states give Obama at least 241 electoral votes, while states that favor Republicans supply only 219 of the 270 needed to win.
Obama can get to 270 by pursuing what Bullock called the UGA football strategy — winning in Florida — by winning North Carolina and Virginia again, by winning the Rust Belt states of Ohio and Indiana or by winning the heavily Latino western states of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada. Republicans have fewer options and less room for error, he said.
Whether Obama is re-elected also depends on the Republican nominee, Bullock said. Obama is polling slightly ahead of Mitt Romney, does better against Rick Santorum and “beats Newt Gingrich like a rented mule,” he said.
The GOP intentionally stretched out its primary season this year by awarding delegates proportionally in early races, Bullock said. Upcoming states are winner-take-all, which means Romney could quickly sew up the nomination if he wins today’s Washington, D.C., Wisconsin and Maryland primaries, he said.
Romney is winning primarily in urban and suburban areas like Atlanta and Savannah, Bullock said, while Santorum and Gingrich are winning in rural areas. They’re also more popular than Romney among evangelical voters and in the South, he said.
Whoever the eventual nominee is, he’ll put the focus squarely on Obama’s record, Bullock said.
“Voters don’t hire challengers,” he said. “They fire incumbents.”