Midterm elections are notoriously flawed indicators for subsequent presidential races. And in an era of political fluidity, when an agitated electorate is quick to register its discontent, much can change over the span of two years.
But overwhelming Republican gains this year, combined with Obama’s descent in the polls and an economy that is lagging badly in critical electoral battlegrounds such as Florida, suggests a return to a national election measured in political inches in which the two candidates vie for advantage on the familiar terrain of Hamilton County, Ohio, and along Florida’s I-4 corridor.
“The map does look a lot like 2004,” said longtime Democratic strategist Jim Jordan, likening the coming presidential race to the clash between President George W. Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. “It does feel like back to the future. We’re going back to political equilibrium.”
Democratic consultant Paul Begala noted that of the eight states that went from red to blue between 2004 and 2008 on the presidential level, Democrats won either the governor’s race or a Senate race in just two of them — Nevada and Colorado — during the past two years. Combined, those two are likely to deliver just 15 electoral votes in 2012.
“If Obama holds the Kerry states and carries only the states in which Democrats prevailed in 2010, he loses,” Begala said.
It's impossible to predict a presidential election based on midterm results. That's even truer considering that 131.2 million people voted in 2008, when Obama was elected, compared with 87 million this month, based on an AP tally of official and unofficial results. The slow-moving economic recovery could speed up, lifting Obama and the Democrats.
November's exit-poll responses provide enough hints that Obama could be in serious trouble if he doesn't shore up his support in crucial areas.
"I'm not going to lie to you, I'm frustrated and I blamed him for some of the bad shape this country's in. We're struggling," said Earlene Durham, 32, of St. Louis, sounding like other independents who backed Obama in 2008. "But then I thought, 'Well, he's trying the best he can.' The only thing we can do is wait and see what he does in the next two years. Gotta give the man a chance."
Exit-poll questionnaires vary state to state, but on several issues that dominated the campaign this year, cross-state analyses are possible.
His job performance rating was more negative than positive among voters in states such as Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Obama won them all in 2008. In Indiana, where Obama was the first Democrat to win the state since 1964, just 37 percent approved.