“I voted for Obama in 2008, but I’m not going to vote for him this time.”
By Adam Geller
We’ve all heard someone utter this phrase, or something close to it by now. Whether we are in the business of politics, analyzing polls and focus groups, or having a more casual conversation about the political scene, this is a statement that seems to come up more often as we draw closer to Election Day 2012.
Now, to be fair, there are plenty of folks who are saying, “I voted for Obama in ’08, and I will vote for him again in ’12.” As long as we are being fair, let us also acknowledge the fact that we have yet to hear anyone state that they voted for McCain last time, but this time they will vote for Obama.
So, the pressing question is the extent to which previous Obama voters will, in fact change their mind. How many mind-changers are needed to make a difference, and swing the election away from Obama?
The answer is: not that many.
Rather than add to the body of analysis that already exists on a state-by-state basis, I want to simply concentrate on the popular vote. In sticking with an analysis of the popular vote, I make every assumption that much of the movement that I describe herein would take place in the battleground states with which we are all familiar.
Let’s start with a reasonable, conservative (small c) theory: let’s assume that no more than one-out-of-ten 2008 Obama voters actually do, in fact, change their minds and this time vote for the Republican. Now, some may say that the actual number may be higher than that, but for now, let’s stick with a smaller safer assumption. Let’s also assume, for now, that turnout matches 2008 turnout.
First, let’s go back and look at the actual popular vote results. Recall that in 2008, the vote tally was:
Barack Obama: 69,456,897 (53%)
John McCain: 59,934,814 (46%)
Other: 1,865,617 (1%)
Now, holding others things, like turnout, constant, let’s assume that 10% of Obama’s voters change their mind, and let’s further assume that no McCain voter of 2008 will turn into an Obama 2012 voter.
Under this scenario, we take 10% of Obama vote out of his total, and add it to the GOP nominee’s total, and this is what we get:
Barack Obama: 62,511,207 (48%)
GOP Nominee: 66,880,504 (51%)
Other: 1,865,617 (1%)
There we have it. If only one-of-ten Obama voters actually do change their mind and vote Republican this time, the Republican wins the popular vote, and likely, the Presidency.
What if 1.5 out of 10, or 15 voters out of 100 change their mind? If that happens, we can start using words like “blowout.”
Barack Obama: 59,038,362 (45%)
GOP Nominee: 70,353,349 (54%)
Other: 1,865,617 (1%)
Is it plausible to suggest that 10 or 15 Obama voters out of 100 would change their mind? Given the President’s poll numbers, it seems plausible, at the very least. And, perhaps more importantly, there is historical precedent.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter garnered 40,831,881 votes against President Gerald Ford. But in 1980, Carter only received 35,480,115 votes against Ronald Reagan – a 13.1% drop.
Reagan won 43,903,230 votes in 1980 – an 11.6% increase over Ford’s 1976 vote total of 39,148,634.
Another comparison (though admittedly a little more messy because of a strong third party candidate, Ross Perot) is found in President George H.W. Bush’s drop from 1988 to 1992. In 1988, Bush received 48,886,097 votes. In 1992, his vote total was 39,104,550 – an astounding 20% drop. The Perot campaign notwithstanding, that’s a mighty drop.
In the context of recent history, a 10% drop doesn’t seem far-fetched.
Let us not discount another voter: There might very well be a 2008 Obama voter who is not going to vote for the President this time, but has also determined that he or she will not for the Republican either. This voter will “sit this one out.” How many of these voters exist? Another 1 out-of-10 Obama voters? If that’s the case, take another 6.9 million voters off of Obama’s projected vote. Don’t add them to the GOP candidate; just take them from Obama.
In 2008, Obama ran under favorable political winds. He was more than the Democratic nominee. He was a history making rock star, promising hope and change, delivering a historic, and briefly unifying, win. Those days are long gone. It turns out that a chunk of Obama voters – between 10 and 20% – may just “change their mind” – and be gone for him too.
Adam Geller is the founder and President of National Research Inc., a Republican polling firm with clients throughout the country. Mr. Geller served as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s pollster in his 2009 Gubernatorial campaign.