A look at two key numbers from the first terms of George W. Bush and President Reagan provides insight into the political prospects of President Obama and the outcome of the 2012 presidential contest.
President George W. Bush won re-election in 2004 with a 47% approval rating but just barely and only as a result of a brilliant, harshly negative campaign (remember the nasty attacks on Senator Kerry's brave Vietnam service?). Indeed, exit polls in the late afternoon of election day in 2004 had Kerry winning the race, but the contest came down to one state--Ohio--that President Bush carried.
President Reagan carried 49 states, but it is often forgotten that in November 1983 America had an unemployment rate of 8.8%, down from double digit unemployment in 1982. It fell below 8% by election day 1984, and the famous "It's Morning In America" campaign nearly even carried Minnesota, Vice President Mondale's home state.
In comparison to presidents Bush and Reagan, President Obama's approval rating is between 46% and 49%, according to polls by Gallup, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, and the November 2011 unemployment rate is 8.6%, down from the 2009 peak of 10.1%. Those numbers would mean a close election were it being held today. They also make it probable that the 2012 campaign by the President will be tough, featuring strong negative attacks on the GOP nominee.
All the campaigns will be watching carefully the President's approval rating and the unemployment rate in 2012, knowing that a campaign's quality decides the winner in a close race but cannot overcome some inherent political facts of life. If unemployment falls below 8% and if the President's approval rating is 47% or higher, President Obama will be re-elected. If unemployment, however, is above 8% and the approval rating is below 47%, America will elect a new President in 2012.