David Brooks is puzzled by Obama’s competitiveness in the polls:
The economic climate is as bad as or worse than it was in 1968, 1976, 1992 and 2000, years when incumbent parties lost re-election.
If we set 2000 aside as a unique case, this doesn’t tell us that much. The economic climate was not the main factor in the Democrats’ loss in 1968. Vietnam, domestic unrest, backlash against the Civil Rights Act in the form of Wallace’s significant third party candidacy combined to give Nixon the very narrow win. Incumbent presidents in 1976 and 1992 had to defeat primary challengers. The primary challenges happened because the incumbents were perceived to be out of touch with their party’s core constituents, and the challenges contributed to the broader perception of political weakness that the opposing nominee exploited to his advantage. Nothing like that applies this year.
As unpopular as the war in Afghanistan is, it does not seem to be having the same political effects that Vietnam did. No one is playing Reagan or Buchanan to Obama’s Ford or Bush. Americans Elect exists, but that is the only thing that can be said for it. Whoever ends up with its nomination will likely receive very few votes. Other third-party candidates are unlikely to have much of an impact on the race, but if they have any impact Johnson and Goode are more likely to pull votes away from the Republican coalition. These things alone might account for Obama’s apparent advantage over Romney. The economic climate is worse than in any of those elections, but it has been very slowly improving. More to the point, Romney doesn’t inspire much confidence that electing him would lead to a remedy for the country’s economic ills, and his election definitely would not lead to a faster end to the war. We don’t need half-baked theories about Obama as “ESPN man” to explain why he is still competitive. Obama is the incumbent President running against one of the least appealing opponents in decades, and incumbent Presidents that don’t face primary challenges typically don’t lose the general election. It would be shocking if Obama didn’t retain some advantage over Romney at this point.
Update: Making much the same argument, Ezra Klein points out that Brooks ignores “the fundamentals”:
In that view, the primary fundamentals are these: Obama is the incumbent. The economy is growing at a moderate pace. There’s no serious third-party challenge. We’re not losing massive numbers of soldiers in a foreign war. And when you look at those fundamentals, the reality is this: Incumbent presidents very, very rarely lose under those conditions.