Maybe the most underreported political story is that President Obama just is not that popular. He has a 50.3% percent job approval rating in the Real Clear Politics average of polls. Obama only barely gets the approval of the median American. It isn’t like the Republicans have to work against a widely-shared perception that Obama is doing a great job. It doesn’t look like they have to win over that many voters to win.
But that might be something of an illusion. Per Charlie Cooke, according to a recent poll, ten percent more Americans identify as Democrats than Republicans. And that’s the good news. When you push independents to lean toward one party, the Democratic advantage goes up to fourteen points and the Democrats reach fifty-one percent voter identification while Republicans are stuck at thirty-seven percent.
Republicans have been able to win with similar identification gaps in the past. The Democrats had an even bigger identification advantage in 1980, but Ronald Reagan won the presidential election by ten percent and carried forty-four states. I think that could be false comfort. The forty-five percent of self-identified Democrats in 1980 probably included a large number of conservative white southerners and persuadable urban working-class whites who identified with the Democrats for ancestral reasons, but who had a recent history of voting for Republicans presidential candidates. It is possible (I think probable) that the Democratic-identifier number was much “softer” in 1980 than it is today. That doesn’t mean that the Republicans can’t win over the median voter(s), but it means (I think) that the median voter is less eager to be won over by the Republican now than in 1980. The job of winning over that voter is prudently started years before the next presidential election or else that voter might turn out to be a much harder “get” than the polls might indicate.
This reminds me of a story that I read in the Wrestling Observer newsletter. Lou Thesz was the pro wrestling heavyweight champion in the 1950s and 1960s. Pro wrestling matches had predetermined finishes, but Thesz had a legitimate background in amateur and submission wrestling. He was a fake world champion who was a real tough guy. One night, Thesz’s opponent went against the script and tried to pin Thesz to steal the title. Thesz got out of the pin and started beating the guy up for real. Thesz puts the guy in an agonizing submission move. The other guy is reaching for the ring ropes. If he can touch the rope, then the referee will call a break and the other guy can escape. The guy is reaching out and his fingers are only an inch from the rope. Thesz whispers in the guy’s ear “You see that rope? As far as you’re concerned, it’s a mile away.” Republicans don’t want to be that guy.