Obama at the electoral tipping point

By Clifford Young
September 1, 2011

By Cliff Young and Chris Jackson
The opinions expressed are their own.

The Obama administration finds itself between a rock and a hard place.  On one side, an emboldened Republican Party smells blood, with their largely successful (politically speaking) full court press on the debt issue and dominance of the news cycle.  On the other, the economic news—both domestically and internationally—has been depressing at best, and downright scary at worst.

Given this dreary backdrop, the common wisdom among pundits and politicos is that Obama has been winged and is beatable in 2012.  Pundits offer varied reasons for this new found pessimism in Obama.

Some cite the dangers of a weakening economy on voters’ mood for “more of the same.”  Indeed, history suggests that no post-WWII president has won reelection when the unemployment rate was above 7.2 percent—bad news for Obama since unemployment looks to remain above 8.5 percent over the next year. Others stress Obama moving too far to the left with a “big government” agenda, while others say Obama has alienated his base by giving in too readily to Republican demands.  Underlining all these critiques are warnings of a Carter-esque “crisis of confidence” scenario where voters lose faith in Obama’s leadership.

However, is this pessimism warranted?  Is Obama truly on shaky ground?  To answer these questions, we base our analysis on a database of 140 elections from 25 countries used for electoral forecasting and poll validation here at Ipsos.

So what does the empirical evidence suggest?

Taken as a whole, Obama is still a favorite.  That being said, he is dangerously close to the tipping point between a clear favorite and a struggling contender.  We detail our logic below.

First, according to our statistical modeling, incumbents are more than twice as likely to win on election-day than non-incumbents.  This results from a variety of factors including greater name recognition and control of the political machinery by the party-in-power. By this metric, Obama definitely has an advantage.

Second, not all electoral scenarios are equal.  While incumbents typically have an advantage, some are in a better relative position than others.  In our experience, job approval ratings are best at capturing the relative position for incumbents.  When approval ratings are high, incumbents are the clear favorites; when they are low, incumbents face strong (if not insurmountable) electoral head-winds.

By this logic, our statistical models show that Obama’s has 67% chance of winning the election in 2012 if his approval ratings stay at 42% (average from Pollster.com).  Obama’s chances of winning improve to 90% if his approval numbers increase to 50%.

In contrast, if Obama’s approval numbers were to drop to 39%, as Gallup has had him over the last few weeks, his probability of winning would fall to 54%.  Put differently, we would have a wide-open election if Obama’s approval numbers fall below 40%.

So what does this all mean in a practical sense?

First, presidential approval ratings at 40% are the tipping point for incumbents.  Above that mark incumbents have a better than average chance of being re-elected, while below that point their advantage disappears.  Obama is hovering dangerously close to the water’s edge.

Approval Rating
Probability of incumbent winning election

Source: Ipsos forecasting model

Second, every point matters.  A few-point increase (or decrease) in Obama’s approval rating can make or break his electoral chances (see table above).

Our own modeling suggests that — excluding some extraordinary events — Obama’s numbers will most likely remain between 39 and 45 points in mid-2012, which points to a 2012 electoral cycle ranging from a totally wide-open election to one where Obama has a slight advantage.

As such, the strategies are quite clear.  Obama needs to finds ways to improve his numbers, while Republicans should work to depress satisfaction with the President.  In either case, this contest, in our opinion, will be a game of mere inches.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

@FoxxDrake: It is unfortunate that you would use ridicule and innuendo to discredit candidates and their policies. It indicates a fundamental lack of understanding of who they are and what they stand for. In particular, I am dismayed at your negative characterization of Mormons. There is no belief in “aliens” or anything that is stranger than what mainstream Christianity believes. The founder of Mormonism claims to have received gold plates from an angel. The Bible claims Moses received stone tablets from a burning bush. So what? Neither is particularly crazier than the other, and none of it is relevant to the problems we now face as a nation. Isn’t it time we look at those with a track record of fixing things (especially financial matters) and lose the nonsensical distractions? Simply ridiculing someone for their religious beliefs is more likely to discredit the one ridiculing and not the one being ridiculed, and it is not a sufficient reason to reelect President Obama.

Posted by SKMauss | Report as abusive

If two sides fail to agree or seek further consultations, the game is up. So Obama and Congress failed to prevent this double dip recession. Numbers fall again. Democrats scurry for cover and Republicans riding shot-gun simply hold up the stage.

Sometime on the evening news a commentator should say, “Maybe Dr.Paul will draw such a high number of independents making the jobs number the trump card on one term. The establishment -Republican leaders will support Romney even to their detriment. So a third party like candidate focused on increasing jobs and reducing big government over a war weary nation in a general election has a 2/3 majority to draw from. The extremes need to lose once in a while.” pHenry

A third choice of an independent on the ballot is already utilized but rarely supported.

Posted by pHenry | Report as abusive


“The Bible claims Moses received stone tablets from a burning bush. So what? Neither is particularly crazier than the other…”

Says you. Where did he find those golden plates again? Oh, that’s right…upstate New York.


I’m sorry. I’m sure you take your religion very serious and all, and honestly as a commie pinko liberal, (aka a registered democrat) religion is not as important to me as most; but do you really think that’s going to matter to the Southern Baptists? Who are like 90% republican?

You’re not veiwing this clearly and perhaps need a new “seer stone.”

Oh, and their policies stink too.

Posted by FoxxDrake | Report as abusive

Obama’s chances of re-election are nil. He should stand down tomorrow. Unfortunately, he won’t, and whoever wins the Republican nomination will cruise to victory in a massive landslide. Then the real work of the right wing will begin: installing an even farther right-wing Supreme Court.

Obama’s failure will have vastly farther-reaching implications for all of us than we can begin to imagine. It is a national tragedy of unimaginable proportions.

Posted by JackMack | Report as abusive

I don’t feel sorry for him. He had it all when he was elected and betrayed those who voted him in. He went against every pledge he made.He can’t even go back and become a progressive because he lost the house 2010. This is nothing short of a disaster. In 2012 the only choices we have to vote for are bad and worse.

Posted by tomsawyer | Report as abusive

As an independent, I voted enthusiastically for Obama, based primarily on his promise to rewrite NAFTA and address other failed trade deals. I’ve been bitterly disappointed. On his first foray into the subject of trade as president, he was sent home with his tail between his legs by the Mexicans, who responded to his talk about NAFTA with huge tariffs on American imports. Those tariffs still stand and he’s done nothing about it. The guy is a candy-ass in negotiations, and he’s proven it time and again, both at home and abroad. Our trade deficit has exploded during his presidency, dragging down our economy and killing jobs. I won’t vote for him again.

Posted by Pete_Murphy | Report as abusive

Reading the posts, there is clearly great disappointment among the President’s base. The sanity of most of the Republican candidates would be difficult to establish. This might be the year for an independent candidate. Ron Paul has been mentioned. Michael Bloomberg? Can we gather support to have the presidential debates stop being a duopoly, and give the American people a less party-controlled choice?

Posted by jfxwsr | Report as abusive

“Can we gather support to have the presidential debates stop being a duopoly, and give the American people a less party-controlled choice?”

Here, here.

Every election we get the same coin and are told to pick “heads or tails” and told that is a choice. But it’s the same coin…over and over again. They are in cahoots with each other.

It’s a fraud. The nation is based and run on a lie.

Posted by FoxxDrake | Report as abusive

@IntoTheTardis: You do realize that Congress needs to invite the President – that the President cannot force the event on Congress? So, he really doesn’t have the option – however, the Republicans showed that jobs creation isn’t their top priority.

Actually, it was Obama whose top priority was not communicating to republicans about his job proposals. By scheduling his speech the same night they would be watching their candidates for presidency, he actually wrote them off.

Posted by AndyAE | Report as abusive


During the last election, the best the Republicans could put out was McCain and Palin – which was great because they helped you lose. Unless something incredible has changed to the Republican party, the steady,but sure Democrats will prevail. Perry would sell his soul to the nuclear waste business and others, which will put off a lot of people and Bachmann (tea party) doesn’t have a chance. When Bachmann won the straw poll in Iowa, you should have seen the faces of Republican News presenters, they looked like they were going to cry and went on talking about Perry – hardly a word about the winner of the poll. Once again, they’re putting their money on the wrong one, and doing the Dems a great favor.

Posted by BuffaloGirl | Report as abusive

Frankly, if America votes the incompetent Mr Obama back into office they deserve their fate which is increased unemployment.

Obama has a knack of doing and saying things that create increased uncertainty in the business climate and, as is well known to most (except Obama voters) the uncertainty prevents businesses from hiring.

Current unemployment among blacks is over 15%, but Obama’s minions somehow have convinced blacks that Obama is not culpable.

Posted by eleno | Report as abusive

“Obama needs to finds ways to improve his numbers, while Republicans should work to depress satisfaction with the President.” What a brilliant deduction!

Posted by thelostdecade | Report as abusive

The 800 pound gorilla in the room is Congress. With so much focus on the President, we continue to forget that the POTUS is no more powerful than what Congress allows him to be…and Congress can not pass legislation with the President’s OK.

Again, he is not king, emperor, ruler, dictator of the US. He shares power equally with Congress. So when asking why this President has been ineffective, you also have to ask why Congress has crippled him so.

…and if Congress still represent their constituents like they are supposed to, or just their major campaign contributors (corporations) who really dont have the welfare of the common man in mind but rather their own bottom line.

Posted by HAL.9000 | Report as abusive

It’s impossible to talk about Obama’s chances at re-election without discussing his possible successor. If Obama were to go against, say, Palin, I’d say his chances of re-election were outstanding (just as an example).

Posted by mahadragon | Report as abusive

You raise a good point, this model is designed to estimate the chances of reelection, i.e. is it a coin flip or trying to roll a seven. However the actual results are still very much determined by events in the real world.

This study is based on elections in democratic systems around the world for two reasons: 1) There are comparatively few cases in post WWII US history (N=16). Using international data gives us a much larger data set and allows us to draw more robust conclusions because… 2) Despite some unique characteristics, most democratic systems are more similar than they are different. Our model is designed to measure the chances for an incumbent office holder across a breadth of systems.

Posted by CJ_Ipsos | Report as abusive